Spitalfields. Altab Ali to Christ Church.

This is a return visit, as I do have a fascination with Spitalfields and Whitechapel. It’s a place, not only rich in its layer upon layer of history, but, rich in its ever-changing present. Paul has discovered that in his Jewish past, he has strong links with Brick Lane. So, we decide to meet up to ‘walk the walk’ together. I’m travelling north from my hotel in Portsmouth, and he, south, from his home in Manchester, to meet in Altab Ali Park. The appointed time comes and goes. I wait 35 minutes. There must have been a hitch. This is magnified by the fact that my ‘phone is on the ‘blink’. There is a hitch. Massively disappointed, I decide to crash on, hoping that I’ll see Paul on Brick Lane. This, unfortunately, does not occur.

The park, in itself, fits in with the ideas of ‘walking round ruins’ propounded by Geoff Nicholson in his book, ‘Walking around Ruins’. The footprint of the church which, originally stood there, the white chapel, finally destroyed by the Luftwaffe, has been developed as a feature. There are scattered old tombs. The old gate remains to remind you of its past. But, there, in the corner, stands the Shaheed Minar, a copy of the Martyrs’ Memorial, in Bangladesh, a mother protecting her children, to remind you of the future. The park is named after Altab Ali, a Bengali, clothing worker, murdered in a racist attack, in 1978. What has been created in his memory is a wonderful, urban, cross-cultural, space. It’s only 100m wide and 100m long, with the busy Whitechapel High Street, on one side, and bisected by a path bearing letters, spelling out words from Rabindrinath Tagore;

‘The shade of my tree is offered to those who come and go fleetingly’.

The park is thronging with lunchtime life. There are office workers finishing their lunch sitting on the grass, girls wandering through, with the, inevitable, mobile ‘phone clamped to their ears. There are groups of Asian men just ‘hanging out’ together, talking animatedly. There is a body reclining on a bench, ‘sleeping it off’. Everything is harmonious. This is a park for local people. Every available seating space, from the benches, to the random boulders of Portland stone, to the grass, to the churches’ low footprint, is being used. This is what a park is for. The only jarring note is struck by a group of lager-clutching, shaven-headed, guys. They have a couple of Bull Terriers with them. They are exercising them by throwing sticks, and balls, onto the grass, without any apparent concern for where they land. But no-one seems to be bothered. The dogs hurtle, to and fro, snarling and chasing, but life goes on, oblivious to these ‘dangerous dogs’. Altab Ali Park is one living, joyous, ruin. I wonder what the legacy of Alan Henning, the beheaded Salford taxi driver, will be? Will someone erect a park for him, in Eccles? I hope so.

The stretch onto Brick Lane was, at one time, a muddy, dirt track, Osborne St. The street is now the preliminary for entering that ‘cut’ of pleasure, Brick Lane.
But my way lies to the left of ‘The Archers’ pub, by the side of the old ‘Frying Pan’ pub, both Victorian, down Wentworth Street.

In front of me, on the corner of Old Montague Street, before I turn, is the site of the old Bloom’s Kosher Restaurant, before it moved onto Whitechapel High St., then Golders Green and, then, onto oblivion. I ate there, on the High Street, with Mike Endlar, in the ’70s, amazed at the size, then at the price, of a ‘salt beef sandwich’! Bloom’s took the same route as its Eastern and Central European, Yiddish-speaking culture, bombed out in the Blitz. There’s no point in looking for gefilte fish, potato latkes or Lockshen soup on Brick Lane anymore. Giles Coren, the newspaper columnist, wrote “I’m furious with myself for not going one last time. There ought to be a shivah for Bloom’s. We should put a plate of salt beef on a low chair. It’s going to be replaced by some God-awful, kosher Chinese or a Indian place.” Worse, I’m afraid, Giles, it’s a fast food, burger, joint. Maureen Lipman hit the nail on the head, “Bloom’s was past its sell-by date!” But, unlike other buildings with a past, it has not become ‘something else’, something to celebrate the past, along with the Spitalfield’s Yiddish culture, it has been obliterated

On the right, 100m down this ordinary street, Wentworth St. stands an impressive arch. Like many arches of antiquity, this is not on its original site, it was re-erected here, as an entrance to a modern housing development.

This is Flower and Dean Court, and stands, roughly where Flower and Dean St. used to stand. Being Whitechapel you can guess who, it is asserted, lived here. Got it in one. Jack the Ripper. How do we know WHERE he lived, when the speculation is endless as to WHO he was? Well, a Canadian ex-policeman produced a ‘geographic profile’, well, that’s a new Science on me. Using mathematical computer models, he discovered that all the victims lived in ‘doss houses’ less than 200m. from the street, and they all drank in ‘The Ten Bells’ at the end of Fournier St. So the killer PROBABLY lived there. Well that settles that little mystery then. But as the Blitz demolished the street, we’ll never know!

Back to the red brick arch, which originally stood in Thrawl St. The last ruin of the original development. The legend, on the lintel, tells us that the arch was erected in 1886, by the company, ‘Four Per Cent Industrial Dwellings Ltd.’. Surprisingly, the company still exists, and functions as the Industrial Dwellings Society (1885) Ltd., owning properties as far apart as Southwark and Barnet. But, the 128 year old links are firmer than that, as the current President is Sir Evelyn Rothschild, whose ancestor, Nathan Rothschild, founded the company. Flower and Dean St. was their first enterprise and their literature stated that;

‘It is estimated that if the rentals were based on a net return of four per cent, excellent accommodation, consisting of two rooms, a small scullery and WC could be supplied at a weekly rental of five shillings per tenement and it is considered that investors will be found willing , and even anxious, to contribute their capital towards a scheme which, while offering a moderate, and safe, return, will, largely, tend not only to improve the dwellings of the poor, but also reduce the high rates now paid for the minimum accommodation.’

The company was founded as a response to a report on ‘Spiritual Destitution’, published by the United Synagogue, in 1884. Other companies, such as the East End Dwellings Company, in Stepney, followed the same route. Report-1884. Company founded-1885. Construction started-1886. This was not a charity, investors were there to make a ‘moderate and safe’ profit. A ‘win-win’ situation. How shallow this ‘response to need’, makes twenty-first century greed look. “Moderate and safe? Sod that. Screw ’em! The bigger the profits the better.” But along these, now, deep-buried streets, the Ripper lurked. I wonder what he, and Nathan Rothschild, would have made of the fact that the average rent, for a two bedroom flat, on Wentworth St., today, is £2 000 per calendar month! I’m looking at the exterior of Cleggs Buildings, on the opposite side to Flower and Dean Court, they must be a sight more attractive on the inside than they are on the outside. Still good to see the Victorian, tiled, nameplate still visible.

As if to emphasise that cultures disappear faster than buildings, on the corner of a Brick Lane and Fournier St. stands the ‘London Jamme Mazjid’, a mosque holding
3 000 worshippers. It started life in 1743 as the ‘Neuve Eglise’, a chapel for the fleeing Protestant, French, Huguenots. It then became a Wesleyan Chapel, bought, in 1809, by the ‘London Society for promoting Christianity among the Jews’. In 1819 it became a Methodist Chapel, but, in 1897, the building bade farewell to Christianity, becoming the ‘Machzike Hadath Great Synagogue. By the 1970s the Jewish community had, largely, moved on, and the building became the thriving mosque that stands before me. The lane, here, is crowded, not with tourists, but men in Islamic religious dress, leaving prayers. It takes little imagination to translate the scene into black coated men wearing yarmulkes, tallis and tzitzis hurrying to celebrate shabbas, a century ago. The language may have changed from French to Yiddish to Bengali, but the sights and sounds of another culture are not foreign here. This is normality, and it still feels as normal, in 2014 as it did in 1714, 1814 and 1914. But the acceptance of another culture will be sorely tested in the immediate future, after the, cowardly, beheading of Alan Henning. There has been outrage, amongst British Muslims, as well as amongst the rest of the community. As I watch, a lot of the men are young men, they are a English by birth, but Muslim by culture. I pray that they are as outraged as I am, and that they don’t bear the brunt of the blame, which is not there’s to accept. To be a devout Muslim is good, to be an assassin is not. It is reminiscent of 1948 Manchester, when the news of the hanging of the British Army Sergeants, by Zionist murderers, resulted in innocent English Jews having their shops, homes and synagogues attacked. It’s strange how this cultural enigma rises in the most unlikely places. Back in Giles Coren’s article on Bloom’s, he says that he misses Jewish cuisine, as modern Kosher restaurants tend to serve Israeli cuisine, not traditional Jewish fare. Culture? Nationality? Religion? A hideous tangle.

Turning into Fournier St. This was, until the 1890s, Church St., but was renamed after a Huguenot silk weaver. These elegant Georgian houses have seen wave after wave of immigrants, who arrived with little or nothing, but hope, and thus, couldn’t afford to drastically alter them. They have housed Huguenot weavers, Jewish garment firms and Bengali textile workers. Now they are worth about £2m each and are home to the artists Gilbert and George and Tracey Emin, the TV presenter Dan Cruikshank and the actor, Jonathan Pryce, lives round the corner in Princelet St. Big bucks these days. The stories of these immigrants flows through history. When I worked in North Manchester, in the 1970s, Idi Amin threw the Asians out of Uganda, with the clothes they stood up in. Many of them found their way into the poorer parts of the city, like, soon-to- be-demolished, Harpurhey. In Uganda, affluence. In Harpurhey, literally, nothing. The Protestant Huguenots were ejected from Roman Catholic France because they wouldn’t convert, and like the Ugandan Asians, applied themselves to making a new life. The Ashkenazi Jews and the Bangladeshis have followed the same pattern. The ‘ruins’ of the Huguenot civilisation can be seen here, on Fournier St., in the second floor ‘weavers’ windows’. But the growth of the London Docks and the rise, in availability of cheap imports, saw off the Huguenot weavers. The same fate lay in wait for Lancashire’s cotton trade. It isn’t surprising that it was in the 1840s that the currently overused, and misunderstood, term ‘nationalism’ began to be coined, as the trade in cheap foreign goods started to effect the home economy and labour market. How current is that? Nigel Farage’s little gang’s roots stretch back a long way into history! In such a small area, Spitalfields, you look into the past, to see the future.

The first house, Number Two, is the Rectory, built in 1726, and what a rectory! The building records survive, so we know that the house cost £1 300 to build, and that the bricklayer, Thomas Lucas was paid £239 9/4d between 1725-1731 and Thomas Dunn, the mason, was paid £297 4/2d. But it was the carpenters who were ‘quids in’ they were given the leases of the buildings, for 98 years. Numbers 4 and 6 were originally one house, given to Marmaduke Smith, who was the first occupant. The next occupant was Peter Camport, a ‘weaver of striped and plain lutestring, mantua and tabby’. In 1745 he undertook to provide 74 of his workmen to resist the ‘Young Pretender’, Charles Edward Stuart. The Londoners were panicking. The Scot’s were coming! James Lardant, at Numbers 8 and 10, a ‘silk, mantua and tabby’ weaver promised 27 of his men. The Rector of the French Church, Rev. Du Bewlay lived at Number 12. It is interesting that the Huguenots of Spitalfields would provide so many men to defend London, but then, knowing how their Roman Catholic compatriots had treated them, ‘back home’, perhaps it isn’t so surprising. The street has a really elegant Huguenot feel to it, even today.

At the junction with Commercial St. stands the magnificent Christ Church, built by Nicholas Hawksmoor between 1714 and 1729. An Act of Parliament was passed, in 1711, to demonstrate Anglican authority, which ordained that 50 new churches should be built. This is one of them. They were built to neutralise the Protestant/Dissenter areas, as the majority of people there, owed no allegiance to the Church of England, thus, none to the Crown either. Strange that the Protestant weavers were to raise so many men to defend London. In the end only twelve of the churches were built. Eight of these twelve bear Hawksmoor’s stamp. As two of the commissioners were Christopher Wren and John Vanbrugh, it does smack of ‘jobs for the boys’! But nothing changes. This is a sacred space of white and light. The spirit is here, in this huge, bright, basilica. I don’t feel the dark, oppressive weight of a cruciform, Gothic cathedral. No feeling that I am being awed into frightened obeisance, or crushed by the weight of darkness. I just sit, quietly, and feel the spirituality of the room. “‘Scuse me. Can you go and sit over there? We’re setting up for a concert.” An abrupt awakening. Two men are re-arranging the chairs. Everyone, and there are several others, sitting quietly in contemplation, must go and contemplate, ‘Over there’. I like this room, it seems to catch, and hold, light like a stone lens. Outside, on the steps, a small coffee stall has been set up, there are people congregating in the afternoon sun, some in animated conversation. All relaxed. It’s a different ‘relaxed’ to the feeling inside the building, but Hawksmoor would be happy that 300 years on, his design is a focal point.

From artistic Georgian elegance to prosaic Victorian utility. Over the road is Old Spitalfields Market, built in 1887. The iron-girdered hall stands on the ruins of markets held there since 1638, it could easily be a Victorian train shed, like Temple Meads or Paddington. Instead of steam, it was filled with wholesale fruit and veg., until 1991, when the business moved to Leyton. It reminds me of visits in the Sixties, with Reid Skipper, to Smithfield, in Manchester. Porters, shouting, jokes, trolleys, cases of oranges being dropped. Noisy and vibrant. This market has been revived. Where there was noise, there is now colour. Where there was bustle, there is now browsing. It’s Arty Farty handbags, jewelry and shoes. It’s street food, allegedly, from all corners of the globe. It’s stall holders who have spent ages, making their wares, setting up their stall, dressing the part, but don’t look like selling anything, busy themselves. This is not my sort of place, there are no books or music. Great that an old building has been saved, and is being used by ordinary people. But . . .

Over the crossing and there’s the ‘Ten Bells’, beloved of Ripper Tours, and Geographic profilers, one of his victims disappeared from here. It does have that Victorian ‘basic’ look, but I prefer my pubs, well, a bit more ‘pubby’. Turning right into Hanbury St. and . . . he’s here again. He ‘did’ one here. Thankfully the grizzly scene has now been covered by a 1960s extension of Truman’s Brewery. There’s just a ‘Flemish bond’ brick wall to look at, whilst voyeuristic imaginations try to run riot. As they stare they may not realise that behind them, is a blue plaque, Bud Flanagan, or Chaim Reuben Weintrop, as he was born, before changing it to Robert Winthrop, was born here in 1896. Who? Well, he was almost before my time, but he was a leading member of a national institution, around World War Two, The Crazy Gang. They were a comedy act in the heyday of variety. Somehow, this plaque seems apt, as a marker that many Jewish East Enders found their way out, via the theatre.

The junction of Wilkes St. and Hanbury St. is a choked mess of honking cars and, involuntarily, stationary vans, whilst two lorries negotiate for priority rights, in, and out, of the packed building site, where Truman’s Brewery stood. Lots of pointy fingers and “If you went theres…..” and dirty looks. This is a real Mexican stand-off, but the smiles, on the faces of the passing pedestrians, make it all worthwhile, unless you are one of the unlucky, static, motorists. Where’s the Congestion Charge when you need one? As I go down Wilkes St., there’s another amateur photographer, busy snapping away. He sees I’m on the same mission. Snap.”Wow! How brilliant is this?” Snap. “Look at that door!” Snap. “What a fantastic place!” Snap. “Yeah,” I drawl, feeling like an old hand,”Unspoiled Georgian is always good for a picture. Have you been down Fournier St. yet?” “Which one’s that?” All of sudden my three previous visits give me a, sort of, status. How sad is that? Here, 260 years ago lived the Bouilliers, M. Duthoit, who was a Captain in the ‘Trained Band’ and M. Deheul, who promised to provide the Band with 47 men. 1745 was ‘payback time’ as far as the French Protestants were concerned, I wonder if they actually wanted the Jacobites to reach London, to give them the opportunity to give the Roman Catholic, French sponsored, ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’ a bloody nose?

I turn down Princelet St., it used to be called Princes St. I wonder why the change? The Huguenot, Fournier St., is only round the corner, but the atmosphere here is, undoubtedly, more Jewish, although Huguenot families did live here, from the period 1705-1720 when the houses were built. French names such as L’Amy, Durade and Allard were among the early occupants. People still live here, in fact, Number 13 is a holiday let. The first house you notice, though, is Number 4, with its pink, peeling, paintwork. There’s a film on ‘You Tube’ which shows its almost unchanged interior, bare, dark, a little ruinous and wooden, consequently, much in demand as a film and TV set. Over the road, at Number 17, the door lintel still carries its Georgian, carved number.
But, I am interested in Number 19. Originally it was a Huguenot house, owned by a Peter Ogier, but, in 1869, it became a synagogue, and remained a synagogue until the Jewish community had gone, in the mid-Seventies, and is now a, rarely opened, museum. My particular interest is the attic, because this is the site of Rodinsky’s Room. David Rodinsky was the subject of a fascinating book by Rachel Lichtenstein. He was a shadowy, Hassidic, figure who disappeared suddenly. He lived in the attic room of the synagogue, forgotten, until the room was ‘found’ and, inside, was a terrestrial ‘Marie Celeste’. Food on the table, tea in the pot, paper waiting to be read, but no sign of David. In the book, ‘Rodinsky’s Room’, the mystery is solved by Rachel, who, along the way makes some startling discoveries about her own family’s background. The door to the house is locked. Thwarted for the third time! The street is not all beautifully reconstructed, indeed it looks, outwardly, rather shabby. On the wall at the end there is some colourful graffiti, not really graffiti, a political noticeboard, history which will be eventually layered over or stripped off. On a door a life-size, stickwoman, in a black burqa holds the hand of a white stickman. No caption required. A poster of George Bush, and Osama Bin Laden, which states, ‘Greed for oil causes war’. Two posters proclaiming ‘Debt dependence is addictive, don’t start.’ and ‘Consumerism causes child labour’. Finally, a circular motif, of a child, on a seesaw, trying to balance with a bomb, in a twilit ruined scenario. All pertinent to our age, signs of the times, which time, itself, or the Council, will eventually erase. What will ‘Time Team’ find, in 800 years time, to give clues of how we, the ordinary New Elizabethans, thought or lived?

Once more down the ‘Curry Pleasure Canyon’, in search of a coffee. I turn right down Hanbury St., a street that is rich in street art, I hesitate to call it graffiti. Mysterious winged figures, underwater scenes, staring-eyed zombies, all temporary, appealing female heads, all marvellous. All will disappear, hopefully to be replaced by the next generation’s creativity and voice. At the bottom of the street is a coffee emporium. All things coffee are on sale. The smell of the roasting beans draws me like a magnet. It’s that smell that’s supposed to sell houses. Inside there are a myriad of coffees for sale, not in ‘grab-your-eye shiny bags’, not proclaiming that they are ‘Free Trade’, but in plain, brown, paper, bags. ‘Smokey flavour. Medium strenght (sic)’. ‘Arabica. Light body. Sweet flavour.’ What more do you need to know? And each coffee is clearly described, for a coffee-loving, non-expert coffee drinker, this is perfect, I know just what I am buying, this isn’t the usual lottery. In the back room is a bewildering array of coffee making technology, from the cheap(ish) lump of plastic to the convoluted piece of engineering that Billy Bean would have had, on ‘Children’s Hour’, all those years ago. It’s a gadgeteer’s dream. I can now disclose that the coffees that I chose were an absolute delight. I shall return to the end of Hanbury St., to this Aladdin’s Cave.

Back onto ‘The Strip’, and on to the site of Truman’s Brewery. The rear is a hive of building activity and the resultant traffic chaos is still evident, on Hanbury St. One lorry is discharging its load and is being serviced by a small group of Chinese workers and their, female, foreman/forewoman/foreperson(?). It seems strange that the whole crew are Chinese. It will be interesting to see what transpires here. This is about to become a ‘destination’. It is a destination for books and music now, at ‘Rough Trade’ and an art gallery is being prepared for an exhibition of, wait for it, Lego-built sculptures. Art knows no bounds. At the end of the Yard is an alfresco, coffee stall, with its own ‘Door Supervisor’. Besuited, muscly and huge, he, actually, has no door to supervise, but he still does look suitably threatening to the sole customers, an extremely safe looking, teenage, couple. Still, you never can tell! ‘Mr. T’ does not look overly concerned by their threat, though, as he is in a deep, meaningful, conversation, on his mobile ‘phone, for a good five minutes.

My next destination is the former Bishopsgate Goods Depot, by the viaduct. En route I pass Quaker St. Just a workaday street which at one time did have a Quaker Meeting House. Unlike the Huguenots, the Jews and the Muslims, the Quaker footprint is very light. Anti-Quaker feeling ran high, at the end of the seventeenth, and beginning of the eighteenth centuries. They were a bit different, I suppose, and a smattering of religious difference, mixed with a soupçon of ignorance, generally leads to persecution. No change today either. The Meeting House was, consequently, attacked. As the law stated that places of worship could not be defended, the Quaker community installed a tenant, so now this dwelling house could be defended. To no avail, the Meeting House fell down, of its own accord, in 1745. Now all that remains is the name of the street.

To my disappointment there is no way into the Goods Yard. So, it’s underneath the arches onto the less exotic end of Brick Lane. The two remaining Bagel shops are up there, sitting amongst normal shops, almost hidden, not ‘shouting’ that they’re there. Then, I notice, it crosses Bethnal Green Rd. and now I’m out of E1, into E2, on the boundary between Shoreditch and Bethnal Green. Here is just low cost, modern, terraced housing. I’m out of THE Brick Lane and onto the bit of Brick Lane where people live, it’s only 200m. long but it is still Brick Lane.

Time to retrace my steps, because I want to go to the second of my parks, Allen Gardens. This is so different to Altab Ali. It’s a huge expanse of grass. It’s not near a main road, although the London Overground runs alongside it. It isn’t crowded and there are all sorts of activities going on. But I know where I am, there is a strong smell of curry, the ‘pleasure zone’ is just behind me. People are, with the exception of a group of Jamaicans, in the corner, either alone or in pairs, and that changes the atmosphere immediately. Couples lounge on the grass, it’s still warm. A Dad walks his, uniformed, son back from school. Another Dad is playing with his children, on the swing park. Why aren’t they in school? The bench that I’m sitting on has a more recreational purpose, later in the evening, as the area behind me is littered with beer cans. Here the dogs are of the more amenable variety. No terriers here, there’s a Labrador, walking quietly on a lead. There’s a Border Collie, chasing a shop-bought projectile, hurled by his owner, for quite a distance, as well, but the collie is up for it. In fact, the owner ‘draws stumps’ before the dog is ready to finish. It’s hard work this throwing! A young woman takes her little . . . ‘what is it, past me. Curious, I ask her what breed it is. No reply. She has her throbbing ear plugs firmly wedged in, she’s oblivious to my question. . . or isn’t sure whether she wants to answer the suspicious-looking guy asking it anyway. A jogger. He must be 75, if he’s a day. He’s wearing a bright yellow Adidas top, light blue, brief, shorts and black trainers. How can he go out with so little jogfashion sense? He should be told. Mind, he does look as if he’s struggling a bit. Nevertheless I always feel a pang of regret that my running days are over, made even worse when the runner is, palpably, older than me. What is he doing in the centre of the park? There’s a half-naked man doing his yoga exercises and, I’ve got to say, making a bit of a spectacle of himself, every passer-by turns to look. But unabashed, he carries on, or, perhaps, he enjoys being abashed! This is not the Spitalfields of the Ripper, this is a modern place of relaxation, a place of repose. It has a calm atmosphere everything here is ‘cool’. There isn’t even the usual collapsed drunk, ‘sleeping it off’. This a park is in any town in the country.

My final destination awaits. The last of my parks. I plunge back into the ‘Brash Slash’. Down Princelet St. and into Puma Court, once Red Lion Court, which joins Wilkes St. to Commercial St. There are two, two-storey, yellow brick buildings, standing behind railings on the right and there is a stone inlaid; ‘These almshouses were erected in the year 1860 for poor inhabitants of the liberty of North Folgate in place of those built in the year 1728 lately taken down for the new street.’
The ‘new street’ was a widening of Commercial St., due to the increase of traffic into London Docks. This was an endeavour to alleviate some of the abject poverty, in mid-century Spitalfields, unlike Flower and Dean St. this was not a ‘for (reasonable) profit’ venture. Each of the inhabitants, lodged in the 16 rooms, received 2/6d per month, a ticket for a loaf of bread each week, 6cwt. (Hundredweight, for the under 30s! 20cwt. made one ton) each December 21st. (officially the first day of Winter) and materials for a Christmas Dinner. They were a place for those who were struggling to earn a living, and were in extreme poverty. Unlike today, the poor, whoever they are, were not reviled, efforts were made to ease their burden, witness the developments in other parts of the East End. The 21st.century has so much to learn from the 19th. That is not to say everything was perfect, it was certainly not, but the well-to-do did seem to have an awareness of what went on, beyond their gilded doors.

Christ Church Gardens is where I intend to sit and take stock of today’s walk. The small garden sits adjoining Hawksmoor’s church. 40m x 20m? An intimate space, surrounded by shrubs, with a tree at its centre. A totally different experience to both Altab Ali and Allen Gardens. I sit on a bench under the tree, in isolation, and look at my notes, and photographs, writing down my final, on site, thoughts on what I’d seen. But I was not alone. Concentrating on what I was doing, I didn’t notice the man who came and sat next to me on the bench. I had seen a sleeping bag under the shrubs at the back of the park. I presumed it was abandoned. It wasn’t.
“I’m not going to ask you for money, I just want to talk to someone.” He’d left his sleeping bag under the bushes.
“I saw you were writing, and thought you looked like a person who would give me a conversation.” His English was eloquent, but clumsy, and delivered in what seemed like an Eastern European accent.
“I’m not going to ask you for money. Nobody usually speaks to me. I think that they are frightened.” I agreed with him, they probably were, in fact , I was nervous, but I had no need to be. He wasn’t scruffy. He didn’t smell of drink. He wasn’t aggressive.
“Where are you from? You aren’t from London.” He was questioning me! I explained that, although I was English, I lived in France, and asked him where he was from?
“Poland. But I came here with my parents, in 1950. They did not like the new Poland. I have been back much times, but I prefer it much here in England. I still prefer it here in England. I don’t like the new new Poland.”
“Whereabouts in Poland?”
I knew that my Great Uncle Moreton was buried there, he had died in a POW camp in 1944. He was one of the survivors of Dunkirk, who was not picked up off the beach by ‘the small boats’. There were many of those, who were to perish in captivity. I asked him if he knew of the cemetery, where Moreton could be buried, but he didn’t. I asked him where he lived now, but he didn’t seem to want to tell me.
“Have you got a home?” I persisted.
“No. I’m a alcoholic. There is no trust.”
I had moved on, from talking to someone sleeping rough, to talking to a guy in a park. A normal conversation. In fact, not a normal conversation because we talked about his Roman Catholic beliefs and my own beliefs. We talked about philosophy. We talked about why he felt that the English people were so welcoming, and how guilty he felt that he couldn’t hold down a job. He even talked about the differences between London and Cracow. He was an educated man. We talked for nearly half an hour. I had to go, and stood up to leave. I was the foreigner and he was the local. I know he had said that he wasn’t asking for money, and he didn’t, but I felt that I’d like to give him a tenner, for whatever he needed it. I offered him a note.
“I didn’t want your money. I wanted to talk.That’s all.” He turned and went back towards the bench. No further words. I left. This was a man that I would have avoided, perhaps been a little afraid of. There must be so many people out there, in the same boat, all they need is a chance, a chance to show that they are normally functioning people, not shuffling threats to be avoided. It was an experience humbling, and illuminating, at the same time. I’m so glad I met him, and I never even asked him his name! Throughout the ensuing hours, and days, I was asking myself whether I should have done more. He left and I felt that my response had been inadequate. I did feel, though, that the encounter had given me a deeper understanding of the cultural story of Spitalfields.

I had decided to finish my day with a meal. But it wasn’t going to be a curry.
On Hanbury St. there is a cracking little Fish and Chip shop. Haddock, chips and mushy peas. Bliss. The meal was delicious and the batter on the fish perfect.
“Who made the batter?”
“I did.”
The voice came from behind the range, in a non-London accent.
“Marvellous. Really crisp and tasty. But you’re not English are you? Where did you learn to make batter as good as that?”
“It’s easy when you know how. Just practice.”
No batter secrets were going to be divulged here. It bore all the secrecy of the Northumberland leek growers fertiliser!
“And we’re Kurdish.”
He returned to the range, he had more important fish to fry, than talking to me, much as I would have enjoyed it.

The traditions of Whitechapel, with its cultural ebb and flow, which has gone on for centuries, continue. Tide after tide of immigration has washed over, and enriched, the area. Spitalfields has been the starting point for numberless stories of assimilation, an assimilation which has given more than it has taken. The descendants of each wave have spread, and thrived throughout the country. No longer are they immigrants from Asia or Europe, they are members of our society. And walking through the East End, today, this life-enriching process continues.


Ivor Gurney. The Gloucestershire genius.

To search for the places that inspired poets can be rewarding, although, if you are looking for the soul of John Clare, you won’t find it in the huge, enclosed fields around Helpston. I went to Gloucestershire to search for the countryside that inspired Ivor Gurney, and it’s still there. There are many similarities between the two men, in particular, they both escaped from Lunatic Asylums, and they both died incarcerated in one. They both wrote about the areas where they lived with clarity and emotion.

‘The Boat’ is a small, red brick, pub on the banks of the River Severn, at Ashleworth Quay. There was a chain ferry over the river until 1916, and it was to that ferry that Ivor Gurney would walk, or cycle, from his home, in nearby Gloucester. It was a small pub at the turn of the last century, when working boats plied the river, and it is a small pub still, now that the traffic is purely pleasure craft.

On this warm, October, day this is where I am beginning my walk around Ivor Gurney’s Severn meadows. Sadly the pub is, temporarily, shut. It was overrun by the river, which must have risen ten feet or more, in the January floods, earlier in the year. The worst flooding since the snow-melt of 1947. It did reopen, but closed for refurbishment in June. I’m informed that the owners are now looking for a new landlord. It really does look inviting with a small beer garden abutting the old brew house. But this pub has history, although it wears it lightly. It had been owned by the same family since the seventeenth century. The story goes that the future Charles II, fleeing from the Battle of Worcester, in 1651, was ferried across the Severn by a man named Jelf. At the Restoration Charles rewarded the Jelf family, by granting them the rights to run a ferry and sell ale from their farmhouse. There is, there always is, an alternative legend that the pub goes back even further, to the time of Edward IV, who, whilst fleeing from the Lancastrians, was helped by the Jelf family. Whatever the truth, the family are still there, and, in this remote spot, both legends are totally believable.

Ivor Gurney did drink here,he did cross the ferry as well, and wrote a poem about it. He wrote it in 1925, in the Asylum at Dartford. Memories of Gloucester, as well as his time in France.

Since Roman had gone there, Dane also gone
Surely it was before the old path of Briton-
Many had gone before me with music had foregone.
And I who had passed from the city once all Roman,
By ways of Dane, by a church named of Saxon.
Looked over to Ferry, hailed and shouted on
Till the boat came – and where Harpers had often ferried;
I was also rowed on Severn, Severn me bore and carried;
(Who had written verse at Dane Rouen, music near Roman Vermand)
To see the tithe barn so noble, the church by time scarred.
Ashelworth the name as musical as any in the Severn-land.

But it is more recent history that catches the eye. Against the back wall, facing the ferry, is a bench, with a brightly-coloured, tub of flowers, alongside, dedicated to the memory of Jacquie Nicholls, who had kept the pub until her untimely death, at the age of 54, in 2003. She was a niece of Irene and Sybil Jelf who had run the pub for over 25 years, until Sybil’s death in 1990. This is a true family concern.

History isn’t always paper, or bricks and mortar. On an outhouse wall, facing the lane are two metal advertisements, ‘Ask for Red Bell Tobacco. The old favourite’, and ‘A1Light’, which, I can only assume, is another brand of tobacco. Tobacco advertising that has escaped the government’s health strictures. This is living history, the People’s history. Opposite inlaid into the ground, with pebbles, in front of the garden gate, another memory of an, obviously, much-loved, landlady, ‘Rene and Jacquie’s Garden. The Boat Inn.’ I am determined to have a pint in this lovely little pub when it re-opens.

Two hundred yards down the narrow lane, I am deep into Medieval England. A barn, a house and a church, huddled closely together. The barn is a Tithe Barn (a tenth for the Church) and, as Ivor says is a ‘noble’ building, a mighty place of toil. It’s owned by the National Trust and, oddly for them, it’s open . . . and free. This magnificent barn was built at the end of the fifteenth century, by the monks of St. Augustine’s Abbey, in Bristol, in local, blue, lias, stone. It’s double-fronted, both doors having quartered gates. The interior is cathedral-like in its proportions, and is the medieval equivalent of that other mighty space of labour, the Turbine Hall, at Tate Modern, in London. There are two threshing floors. This would have been a place of great agricultural activity. Where there is now sepulchral silence there would have been torrents of ‘agricultural’ language. Sound is difficult to preserve. Much sweat has been generated here. But people, of that age, were also aware of the fact that they shared the land, and that everything had its place. High in the gable end they built in an ‘owl hole’, to provide the nocturnal predator with access to roosts and, also, to allow them to perform their ‘pest control’ duties. But men (I can only assume that it is men) have left their mark in other ways. By the doors, etched into the walls, are centuries of graffiti, men’s timeless need to scratch their initials onto buildings. The need to be remembered. Well, ‘HDT 1673’, consider yourself marked for posterity, whoever you were! Of another age, this is the history of the people who lived, toiled and died here, and their hard, hard, lives.

The church of St. Andrew and St. Bartholomew stands around the corner, not, as Ivor describes it, ‘time-scarred’, at all. The Church of England has the habit of locking its churches, (“You look like a thief. Begone!”) but, again, I’m in luck, this one is open, and what a gem. The cultural genocide perpetrated by the Normans is in evidence here, of course. In the South wall you can see where a Saxon doorway has been filled in, and replaced by a Norman one, but they did leave some Saxon herringbone brickwork. Unlike many churches, not every Saxon trace was expunged. Much of the building belongs to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, but there is a feeling that this is a vibrant parish community today. At the east end of the South aisle is a beautifully painted, Royal, coat-of-arms, ‘E R’. This could be for Edward VI. If so, that it survived the efforts of Mary, to return England to the Roman Church, is unusual, and very rare. The South aisle is tiled in Victorian tiles and also contains the, coffin-like, Parish Chest, the centuries old repository for the parish documents. The Filing Cabinet and Safe.
In the West wall there is a door, above which is a painted text from an epistle of St. Peter, ‘But the end of all things is at hand: be ye therefore sober, and watch unto prayer’. This is the door through which the coffin bearers entered and left the church. This is, literally, ‘Death’s Door’.

The church is in closer proximity to The Lord of the Manor than it is to the village, closer to the money than the souls, that is. Over the wall is Ashleworth Court, built at the end of the fifteenth century. It now pays its way as a Bed and Breakfast. Two large lancet windows suggest that there is a Great Hall lurking indoors, but, unfortunately, it is private property, I’ll never know, but it is a beautiful looking, and well-kept, house.

Before I strike off into the fields I pass the graveyard. It has an, inscribed, lych gate. ‘To the memory of Eveline Anne Savage 1877-1945 who resided in Ashleworth during the raids on Merseyside. Erected by her husband.’ The dates here do not seem to make any sense, in connection to the reference to the air raids. Was she a long term resident? Did she come here to escape the Blitz? In her sixties seems a bit old to be an evacuee? Through a gap in the hedge, there, close together, in death, the gravestones of Ms. Nicholls and the Jelf sisters, from ‘The Boat’. Rest in peace Ladies.

Straight in front of me I can see Barrow Hill. This was a favourite walk of Ivor Gurney, up, its shallow slope and into the small wood on its top, I hesitate to call it a summit, from here he could see for miles over countryside that he loved. I walk alongside a hedge through which, to my left, I can see a manor house, built in 1460, as a retreat for the abbot of St. Augustine’s. He wouldn’t have had long to enjoy it before his monastery was dissolved, but then he wasn’t to know that, was he? Ashleworth Quay must have been a hive of building activity, at that time, with men engaged in construction all over the hamlet. It’s hard to imagine this quiet place as a ‘hive of activity’ but with construction, labour-intensive agricultural methods and the river traffic, it must have been. Quaint old hamlets they may be now, but, centuries ago, this is where people lived and worked, there would have been noise and bustle. Their rude homes didn’t have the ‘staying power’ of the stone-built manor houses, but they were here. There are similarities with searching for our own working class roots. The terraced houses where my family lived and worked have gone. Covered with trading estates or new developments, and they lived there only a century ago. Brick-built to last? I don’t think so, it isn’t always the ‘wrecking ball’, but the ‘wrecking ball’ of time that sees them off.

The hedge alongside which I’m walking is a feast of colour, even at this late stage of the year. The hawthorn berries are still a vivid red, setting off the black of the sloes on the blackthorns, delicate flowers nestle in the hedge bottom, yellow and blue, whilst, above, the hazels are thick with nuts. Higher still the walnuts and chestnuts bear a rich harvest. I wonder if the locals are as keen on foraging as their Breton counterparts? Crossing a lane Barrow Hill is before me. Over the road, follow the path and then the path disappears, I can’t see any discernible track across the next field, nor a stile in the opposite hedge. Ivor, in his walking, would not have encountered barbed wire, that was something which he would become well acquainted with, in France, during the war, but here hedges and fences would be his most difficult obstacles. Farmers would respect people’s right to roam then. I don’t think I’ll chance it, I’ll take to the lanes.

As well as well-defended fields, there is one other thing, at this spot, and he must have stood here, that he would not have recognised, the power lines and their huge stanchions. They spread their feet wide and hum as you pass. It was the view from near here that evoked, in ‘Winter Beauty’, written at the Front in February 1917 ;

I cannot live with beauty out of mind
I search for her and desire her all the day
Beauty, the choicest treasure man may find
Most joyous and sweetest word his lips can say
The crowded heart in me is quick with visions
And sweetest music born of a brighter day.

This gives an example of the poet’s art and craft. This verse was written on two bits of paper stained with bully beef from a spitting fire. He said ‘these two disgracefully dirty scraps of paper I am sending contain two of my best things’. Six months later he redrafted them into;

I cannot live with beauty out of mind;
I seek her and desire her all the day,
Being the chiefest treasure man may find,
And word most sweet his eager lips can say.
She is as strong on me as though I wandered
In Severn meadows some blue riotous day.

But the animals remain. There are cows in the adjacent field and, further over, a flock of sheep graze. But, as I follow the wire, a pair of grey horses a mother and daughter I think, follow me. When I stop they come over I but when they realise that all they are going to get is a stroke, rather than some food, they quickly lose interest and wander off.

The farmer has tried to mettle the way to the lane with some broken bricks, to give the tractor some purchase. I pick up one of them, hoping for a clue to it’s origin and there, stamped on it, is the word ‘Fletton’. An old brick from an old company? The remains of a demolished cottage? Not a bit of it. ‘Fletton’ is the generic name for bricks fired from Lower Oxford Clay. They are actually named after the village, near Peterborough, where the benefits of a brick, fired with lower fuel costs, was first recognised. In 1923 the giant London Brick Company took over the firm, and production was moved to Marston Vale, in Bedfordshire, where millions of bricks were produced. Most of us, of a certain age, will remember the huge brick kilns which ran alongside the M1, near Junction 13, for many years before their demolition. In fact, they are, probably, remembered with fondness by many. The northerners last fleeting glimpse of industry on his way into the rural south. Massive disappointment.

As I reach the lane it occurs to me that, thus far, I haven’t seen a single vehicle or met a single person, and I’ve been walking for well over an hour. It would not have been so quiet in Ivor Gurney’s day. The walking on Gloucestershire lanes is not dissimilar to walking through the bocage countryside of Normandy, high hedges to weatherproof the lanes and only glimpses of the neighbouring land.

Eventually, through woods and fields, I reach the ribbon development that is Wickeridge Street. Hardly noticeable, just farms and the odd cottage. Gurney’s thoughts were constantly drawn back to Gloucestershire, and it’s countryside, whilst he was in France. He identified French villages, or their remains, with these villages. He could have been writing about this village in his poem ‘Riez Bailleul’;

Riez Bailleul in blue tea-time
Called back the Severn lanes and roads
Of hawthorn leaves turned with night’s rime
No Severn though nor great valley clouds.

Here we have Lime Kiln Farm, not too difficult to imagine the origin of its name. My dream of local bricks made with local lime was quashed miles back! Berrow Farmhouse could once have been ‘Barrow Farmhouse’ as in the hill. Yew Tree Farm with it’s gloriously huge yew. And there is ‘ ——– Cottage’, a small, timber framed Seventeenth century building, and it’s for sale. I wonder? A quick look at the Estate Agent’s blurb, perhaps;

‘Though Gloucester took a hard blow from the Recession that it has yet to recover from, this home has been a solid investment making estimated gains of 6% to
£263 785 since it was last purchased in July 2004.’

So the present ‘investor’ has lived there for ten years, having paid £250 000 for it. What about the location, the interior decor, the size? Is it a ‘nice little earner’ or a home?

‘The neighbourhood will be almost all white British residents as there is a bit of a lack of diversity (sic).’

What? What year is this? Where am I? What message is this giving to what audience? Is this sort of stuff still allowed in 2014? Obviously it is among this firm’s clientele. Doesn’t mention gays, so we’re probably alright on that front as well!

‘and an average age of 48, so you may not see so many children running round.’

Well that’s a relief! None of those noisy little oiks enjoying themselves in the fields during the holidays? And, probably, no Lambrettas, Vespas, Suzukis and Yamahas (motorcycles rather than organs) either. But it doesn’t rule out geriatric bikers on their Harley-Davidsons, does it? Mmmmm.

‘Nearby residents tend to be well-educated with over 25% having a university degree’

So three-quarters of the population are from the uneducated classes, well it doesn’t actually say that, but I shall feel superior with my ‘lower second BA’ in Theatre Design from the University of West Wombleshire. And it doesn’t say 25% of how many. But who’s interested? It’s only a jolly good number anyway.

‘And they say (to nosey Estate Agent’s clerks, at any rate) that they are in relatively (generally, usually, at times?) good health, overall.’

Oh, excellent. We shan’t be bothered by ambulances and their sirens or
lane-jamming funeral corteges. And there may be half a chance of immortality! Of course, any house viewer would notice those nasty, woolly, furry things over the road. They, cleverly, haven’t mentioned them, but we’ve seen them.
(Nudge. Nudge). Do they make those bleaty sort of noises all night? And they do clear up their own mess . . . don’t they?

I really am in a world that Ivor Gurney would not recognise, and would not want to recognise. Those quotes are real, they have been taken, verbatim from the Internet. I can’t believe that these are the criteria upon which homes are bought. Yet, to stand and look, this is a working, farming, community. Something there about appearances being deceptive. These buildings were there in his time, he would have known them. He would have respected them. This has been a rudely catapulted re-entry into the money-grubbing, status-conscious, world that is twenty first century England.

Then left onto a Private Road or driveway. A multitude of ‘Keep Out’, ‘Strictly Private’ signs. This is a threatening roadway. Then, the road is gated. Without thinking I move through, at least ten paces towards a Victorian, Gothic, mansion. Ten paces is all it takes, “Can I help you?” (“What the hell are you doing here?”). I can see that this is an impressive pile, with an impressive view, I’m standing at the side of the house. “Well?”(Are you dumb?). This is Foscombe House, built in 1866 and on the market for a cool £3.5m. Sir Nikolas Pevsner was mightily impressed by it, as an ‘unspoiled Victorian fantasy’. The Bramah family had lived there. Who?
The inventors of the fountain pen, the beer pump and the water closet. Those Bramahs? An author called Derek Marlow lived there as well. You know, the one who married Suki Phipps, the daughter of Sir Fitzroy Maclean. He wrote an episode of ‘Murder She Wrote’. Yes, him. He did have some great advice for aspiring writers,
“Never think too hard about what you’re going to write – just jump in. I’ve never known the end of my book, nor even the middle, until after I’m halfway through.” Maths was obviously not a strong point. But, and here we do get closer to my present predicament, in the 1980s it was owned by Charlie Watts. THE Charlie Watts. There were reports that he was going to sell it for £200 000 in 1983. A reporter from the Western Daily Press was despatched to investigate. No sooner had our correspondent set foot out of the car than a pack of dogs were on him, closely followed by a yellow track-suited Rolling Stone, who invited him to leave, or words to that effect. And he seemed like the nicest of the Stones! “Well? Come on. Move off.” (Move. Now.). “I’m looking for the track to Ashleworth.” “Out of that gate and turn left.” Well at least there were no dogs!

So down the indicated track I went. I got the impression that I had approached the house by the original back entrance, and that I was now walking parallel with the original main drive, heading for the front of the house. The rôles were now reversed. And, to be honest, although I’m not a huge fan of Victorian Gothic, this did look pretty spectacular.

I actually join the drive outside the confines of the main gate and head down the main road into the village of Ashleworth. The name is probably Saxon, ‘the enclosure of Aescel’. I just love researching the derivations of place-names. This has the feel of a real village. The village post office next to the village hall. A mix of housing because it seems that many older buildings have been, I nearly said ‘preserved’, but they are still in active use, alongside their more modern counterparts, which seem to fill natural, rather than contrived, gaps. The population is, about 550. It was 553 in 2001. In 1971 it had dropped to 300, from a high of 590 in 1861, the mechanization of agriculture? But, due to new building it seems to have stabilised. I go into the Post Office for some refreshment after my walk, and it’s everything a village shop should be, selling bits of everything, sweets for the kids and a few papers. The lady behind the counter, probably the owner, was cheery and chatty. I enjoyed spending a few ‘bob’ there. These places, desperately, need preserving, they are quintessentially English, never mind Maggie’s market forces! Society needs them. Oh I was forgetting, there is no such thing as Society. Well, yes there is, and I’m in it! There’s a solid looking, early nineteenth century, red-brick, pub, selling food and real ale. In itself a history lesson. The window, in the middle, on the ground floor, used to be the front door, the middle window on the first floor has been restored, after it had been bricked in. Perhaps a victim of the Window Tax, introduced in 1696 and not repealed until 1851. So would it have been built between these years with an extra window. One for the ‘House Detectives’. The ‘Queens Arms’. More essential ‘Society’. I like this place. My road now led back to Ashleworth Quay, a downhill mile. An unremarkable mile, except for the group of church, barn and manor, which I have enjoyed on my way out.

So I’m back at the deserted ferry, river and pub. There used to be two pubs here, ‘The Boat’ and ‘The Wheatsheaf’ and five or more dwellings, a small settlement. Of them, save ‘The Boat’, there is no sign. With exception of a few people, and the odd car, in the village itself, this has been a solitary walk. I sit, for nearly an hour, reading and musing about Ivor Gurney. A lone river cruiser passes on the Severn, and the helmsman acknowledges me with a wave. I think that I have seen something of what drove him to recall this place, in verse, whilst he was fighting in France. The rural isolation that appealed to him, where he was free to inhale the air of poetry and song. I can recognise his desire to return from Dartford, to the green of Gloucestershire, and it seems a crime that he was not allowed to. I have only touched on his poetry but he was a gifted musician as well. He must sit, with John Clare, as one of those Englishmen with great, unsung, genius, who at last are beginning to be recognised and fêted.

Above Ashleworth

O does some blind fool stand on my hill
To see how Ashleworth nestles by the river?
Where eyes and heart and soul may drink their fill.

The Cotswolds stand out eastwards as if never
A curve of them the hand of Time might change;
Beauty sleeps most confidently forever.

The blind fool stands , his dull eyes free to range
Endlessly almost, and finds no word to say;
Not that the sense of wonder is too strange

Too great for speech. Naught touches him; the day
Blows it’s glad trumpets, breathes rich-odoured breath
Glory after glory passes away.

(And I’m in France!) He looks and sees beneath
The clouds in steady Severn silver and grey
But dead he is and comfortable in Death.

Ivor Gurney

On The Edge of Beauty.


On the Edge of Beauty

The wind bites with decembercruelty. I’m on the edgelands. But this is not the edgeland of a city, this is the edgeland of West Cumberland. Behind me the misty immensity of The Lakes and, before me, the greysea swell of the Solway Firth. There are all the colours of coldness, out there, stretching between where I stand, and the Scottish shore, the hills of Galloway. I’m looking at the tide mark of the Irish Sea, and out, into a bleak wonder that raises the spirits. This coast is divided into two distinct areas. The one ravaged by industrial desolation, the steel of Workington, the coal of Whitehaven, the iron of Millom, with their harbours, and the silent ports of Maryport and Silloth. All gone. It’s as if time is not a linear thing, it actually stretches out on either side of you, you walk among the living, and dead, past. But, on this spot, the feeling is different. There are no industrial sores here, in the tiny village of Allonby, between Maryport and Silloth. Interestingly, there is a Breton connection in the name of the village. Alein’sby. ‘Alein’ is an early Breton, male, forename and ‘by’ is the Viking suffix for a village or hamlet. I’m closer to home than I thought. The Romans had been here, fleetingly, there is a lookout post, on the shore, between here and Maryport, now just a pile of stones, but a Romanp pile nonetheless. The Vikings who were driven out of Dublin by the warlike Celts, at the end of the 9th. century, settled in this little bit of England, a bit that they had missed in the first place, hence ‘by’ in the village name.

In this, bitingly, cold, December, weather the houses, as well as the people, are hunkered down. They cling together, closely, along the shoreline, there isn’t enough room for the wind to penetrate between them. Houses crouch rather than stand. I have come here with a purpose, to discover some of the sites drawn, and painted, by the Workington- born artist, Percy Kelly, who, for twelve years, lived here, in Glen Cottage.

The stimulus for my visit, was a series of walking books by Chris. Wadsworth, which lead you through some of the sights, and sites, which lit Kelly’s artistic fires. Each an area of West Cumberland.

As I park my car on the exposed Car Park, at the south end of Allonby, ominously, an empty hearse draws up alongside me. We are the only two cars in this, wind ravaged, field, and he chooses to park right next to me. The sombre suited driver smiles mischievously, at least, I think it is mischievously, I cannot bring myself to return the smile! Very ominous. It’s almost like the Lancashire superstition that the night before you die, you hear the sound of a horse trotting on the cobbles, and it pauses, to whinney, beneath your window!

Above, Herring Gulls swoop and soar, this strong wind is made for them to show off their aerial prowess. The sky is full of them, like one of those moving spirographs of starlings that used to entertain, each evening, over Piccadilly Gardens, in Manchester or North Pier at Blackpool. From the church, opposite the Car Park, houses straggle along the coast road, just a single depth of houses, there is nothing behind them, except caravans. If any church can look weather-beaten, yet defiant, this one does. Squat and determined. It was built in 1845 to replace a Chapel-at-ease. It should be called a Chapel-at-Ease again. These chapels were built for parishioners who had a long way to walk to reach the parish church, or for the convenience of the local lord of the manor. I think I’ll go for option one, although a church could be ‘relegated’ if there had been a significant shift in population.
If, within a hundred years, the population had halved, as here, that could be a reason for its forlorn aspect. In common with many rural churches, the vicar, the Rev. Mary Day, lives in Croscanonby, and shares her ministry. Then, along the shore, I have to pinch myself, and remind myself that I’m beside the Irish Sea, not the Pacific, as I pass the Baywatch Hotel and Jack’s Surf Shack. Really! The thought of Pamela Anderson’s goose pimples warms me to the marrow!

There are people about. A woman stops, whilst I’m sketching, and initiates a conversation. We can hardly stand upright, and here I am talking to an Australian ex-pat … desperately … desperately …John Cleese-like, trying not to mention the Ashes! Her choice of conversation? To talk about the chances of the sea overwhelming the village. Recent news is still fresh. She actually lives in a Allonby, but, I think, a true native would have shown much more optimism. There are no sea defences. In a week when the east coast storm surge toppled houses onto the East Anglian beaches, that must have been of concern here. The last great tidal surge, in 1953, started just north of here, off Stranraer, then proceeded to smash its way, murderously, down the east coast of Britain. I thought I’d got away with it, but no, “Your boys aren’t doing so well in the Ashes!” I turned into the wind, and left her to her walk!

Allonby has a rock-strewn beach, a footpath level with the sand, and an expanse of grass, probably forty metres wide, before the totally exposed houses. The only other people on the path, I hesitate to call it a promenade, are wind-blown dog walkers. Oddly, all the dogs look similar, small, short-legged, ‘ I-might-be-small-but-I-can-cope-with-anything’ models. It seems to make sense in this wind. Their masters look the same as well, shrouded in battered-looking, green, anoraks and wearing woolly hats (bobbles optional) But they all speak. Everyone says “Good morning.” No-one passes in silence.

I turn inland, with my back to the sea, past two former inns, ‘The Solway’ and ‘The Grapes. It was outside the ‘Solway’ that the crowds gathered, in 1903, one stormy night to witness the grounding of the ‘Hougoumont’, a ship bound for Liverpool, from San Francisco. The beach was littered with the cargo, and the detritus of a wreck, including crates of peaches, pears and salmon. They were not labelled, so the only way to discern the contents, was by shaking the tin, if it ‘glugged’, it was fruit. None of the 20+ crew, nor the captain’s wife, were lost, but I wonder where all that fruit and salmon went !!!?

There, next to the Post Office stands a Fish and Chip Shop, ‘The Codfather’, I love the imagination that goes into naming Chip Shops.

There is the red, road, bridge, over the beck, that Kelly took so much delight in drawing and painting, rebuilt when a traction engine destroyed the original in November 1907. The engine, en route from Maryport, was dragging three wagons, containing a steam-driven fairground ride. It toppled into the swollen beck, destroying the bridge. The local bobby, PC Richardson,took control, directing traffic. Those were the days, when the police were there for the public good, rather than catching people out and fining them. Glorified tax collection. He directed them through the beck, which was much wider and shallower than today. I don’t think I’d have fancied that in my battered, old, Citroen Xantia! A Mr Twentyman took it upon himself to bring planking from a ship being broken up on the beach, to construct a temporary walkway. Nobody was hurt. I can only presume that this is a relation of the Twentymans who owned the village shop in Percy Kelly’s time, and still do. Ship breaking was a major trade at the turn of the century. Ships were brought to Allonby beach to be broken up. Much of the wood went to the burgeoning local coal industry for pit props. Is that a ‘Green Policy’? Or just common-sense recycling?

Back-to-the-Sea is Kelly’s direction as well. He isn’t drawn by the elemental strength of nature, but by the more prosaic lines of the houses. There is a full,
from-every-angle, view of the bridge area, in Chris. Wadsworth’s excellent guidebook, c/o PK!

I’m drawn by a piece of antique street furniture, by the side of the bridge, a ‘Cumberland C.C. Fingerpost’. Probably seventy+ years old. It feels, timelessly, right, here. Living history. And there, unostentatiously, stands ‘Glen Cottage’, Percy Kelly’s home for twelve years. Well, home till his wife arrived back, one evening, unexpectedly, to find him sat in his chair, wearing her clothes! The bland face of the small, rural, cottage hides it’s ‘dreadful’ secret, without expression. The Fiat ‘Uno’ parked outside, also, seems totally unconcerned, as you would expect from an Italian, used to such ‘la dolce vita’, I expect.

To turn along Garden Terrace, to the right of his home, is almost surreal. To walk along it gives the sensation that you’ve stepped through some, invisible, wardrobe door and entered, a Cumbrian Narnia, or, at least, that you’ve stepped into a Kelly picture. But walking into one of Percy’s pictures will make you, immediately, invisible, his pictures are form and shape, but without people. This is not true of Allonby today. It’s population, in the early 19th. century, was between 700-800. When Percy lived in the village it had plunged to 400, and now, (in 2001), it stands at about 470. It is growing again. Garden Terrace is a cul-de-sac, ending on private property. Returning to the bridge, and turning directly right, heads you down a narrow lane, for Westnewton and Aspatria, and there is ‘Globe Inn Cottage’. Formerly ‘The London Apprentice’, it is for sale. Another facet of the village, opens up, it’s pubs. Most are closed, and are residential cottages, but every other house seems, at some time, to have been a public house. They must have been prodigious drinkers, these Cumbrians of old. Since turning from the sea I have passed three, well four really, if you count the guest house almost next to Glen Cottage. This was, until 1850, the ‘Queens Head’, and then became the ‘Queens Temperance Hotel’. It was owned by T. Armstrong and, on old photographs, boasts stabling and ‘conveyances for hire’ and, there, on the picture, a very smart ‘conveyance’. Allonby was a holiday destination at the end of the nineteenth century.

Almost opposite Globe Cottage is the entrance to ‘The Square’. I use the word ‘entrance’ advisedly. I am looking down a very narrow, cobbled street, once the main thoroughfare of the village. It’s date is given away immediately, on the first house, a datestone for 1679. This is real history, not the ‘stuffed and preserved’ history of the larger tourist traps. This has not been subsumed by ‘Ye Olde Gifte Shoppe’, people live here, as they have for centuries. Allonby has evolved rather than been developed. It lives, and breathes, in its own quiet, understated way. I do like it here. It’s real. There is no room for the wind. It doesn’t whistle through the alleyways, it knows that it isn’t welcome. A cottage bearing a coat of arms, dated 1650, emphasises the street’s age. To my left are two more former pubs. One, unashamedly, ‘The Swan’, is called Swan Cottage but more demurely, almost adjacent, stands the ‘The Sun’. At the end of Temple Terrace, a neat row of cottages, is a wreck, a ruined farmhouse. I fervently hope that it is not taken up as a weekend cottage, but becomes a home for a local family, people who are going to live here. On Temple Square, named for the family who lived there, rather than any religious connotations, stands the former ‘Greyhound’ pub. How many pubs could this population stand?

Passing Temple Square, there is a break in the housing, on the left, and there over the beck stands an imposing group of buildings. These are the Fishyards. The herring industry had been important here in the late 17th. century and these buildings were owned by the Beeby family, a family of Quakers. Here herrings were gutted, salted and packed. Some were smoked, the gorgeous aroma of Kippers must, once, have filled the air. There was even a cooperage in the complex, to make the barrels, into which the herrings were packed. By 1900 the herring industry had slumped. This being Allonby, there was also a pub in there! ‘The Spirit Vaults’, a grog shop. It sounds an extremely rudimentary ‘drinking den’, and was described as ‘a darksome place’. Old photographs bear that description out! It was run by the Costin family and could have had, as it’s origins, the rum smuggling trade which thrived along the Solway. Alfred Costin, opposed by the Police, and the Temperance Union, lost its license in 1903. Pretty substantial opposition for our ‘grog shop’ owner. The buildings became a stables, and riding school, you can still see the stone, horses’ heads which adorn the gateposts. Now there are some private dwellings and a huge, weatherworn, gable end.

Allonby is a treasure house of architecture, and that facet of the walk is about to unfold. There, in front of me, on the main road, is an Italianate, red brick, building, complete with staircase and tower. It is in the throes of renovation, into a private house, but a sympathetic renovation. It’s character is being retained. This is the ‘Reading Room’ and another door into Allonby’s past is about to open. The building was erected in 1862, financed by a Quaker industrialist, from the North East, Joseph Pease. He was part of the group that started the Stockton and Darlington Railway Company. He was the largest mine owner in South Durham, and bought the land which was to become the port of Middlesborough. A Victorian entrepreneur par excellence. He became an MP, supporting the Whigs ( later the Liberal Party). He was the first Quaker MP and, in common with Quaker traditions of fairness and honesty, without ritual, refused to take the oath, but was, eventually allowed to affirm. Neither would he remove his hat when entering the House, Quakers believing that all men are born of equal worth. He was a prodigious man. At the age of 61 he became a father, for the sixteenth time! At the age of 63 he commissioned the Reading Room and he was to die, in 1872, aged 73.

But this extraordinary man is not the only notable Victorian Quaker associated with the building. He commissioned a young, Quaker, architect to design his Reading Room, the 32 year old, Alfred Waterhouse. Waterhouse had set up practice, in Manchester, in 1853, and was to be responsible for much of the architectural glory of Victorian Manchester, as well as many Quaker homes in the North East. In 1858 he designed the Assize Courts, in 1862, the formidable Strangeways Prison and finally the Gothic, totally irregular, rectangle, that is the marvellous, Manchester Town Hall, in 1877. If you see the interior of the Houses of Parliament, depicted on a television drama, you can bet your life you are really looking at the interior of Waterhouse’s wonderful building. His crowning glory came in 1873 when he designed the Natural History Museum, in London. And here I am, on the banks of the Solway looking at a building designed by Waterhouse. Incredible. Like Pease he recognised that construction was part of the industrial process, but also embraced the principles of the Arts and Crafts Movement. He designed a bold statement on the West Cumberland skyline. The Reading Room actually closed its doors, for the last time, in the 1970s, after more than a century’s service. Well done to its new owners for the, sympathetic, restoration which seems to be going on.

On the Reading Room clock it shows 12.40. Over the road, on the Allonby Hall, it is 9.50. This building was opened on November 9th. 1905, by EH Banks JP., of Highmoor, Wigton. An old photograph shows the event. A large, but orderly, crowd has gathered outside the front door, women on one side, in full Edwardian dress, with required, large, hats. In the centre, the Sunday-suited children and on the right the menfolk, capped or hatted. Almost hidden, standing on the Hall steps, are the besuited, but bare-headed, dignitaries. The Edwardians certainly knew how to take a dignified, and comprehensive, team photograph!

The, current, noticeboard is a document of our times. It should be preserved for posterity. The results are posted for the, uncontested, Parish Council Election of April 2011 ( two and a half years ago, and still there!). Civic apathy, I wonder?
Then, a notice posted on 20.08.2013. ‘Due to austerity measures Allerdale District Council are (sic) reducing the concurrent grant by 50% for amenities and services in Allonby parish. This will cause financial loss to the Parish Council in future.’ Shame on the government for this strangulation of a community! Then we have a meeting of the ‘Over 55s Club’ every Thursday. The Christmas Lights Switch-on will be held, outside the Hall, on Saturday 14th. December, with mulled wine, mince pies and Santa (Blackpool eat your heart out!). Allonby School will be presenting ‘The Stable Boy’ on the evening of December 11th. Bravo Allonby!

At the furthest remove from the parish church, at the north end of the village, is the Congregational Chapel. There is never any doubting that a building was once a Non-conformist Chapel, like French level-crossing houses, they all look identical. Now a private house but still obviously the Chapel. It was built in 1844, and still bears the legend ‘ Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together as the manner of some is but exhorting one and other and so much the more as ye see the day approaching – Hebrews X Verse XXV’. Fire and brimstone will have been breathed within those walls. A nineteenth century Sunday morning was a busy time in Allonby.

A little further north is a low cottage, now a private house, but between 1703 and 1991, this was the Quaker Meeting House. A low-key, simple building, for a low-key, simple faith. There are still only 25,000 Quakers in England today. There is so much to admire about their simple faith. I find it so reminiscent, in certain respects, to the beliefs of the Cathars, in Languedoc, whose genocide by the Roman Catholic Church has interested me, for so long. Quakers eschew ritual. As did Cathars. Quakers do not need a priest to intercede between God and Man. Neither did the Cathars. Both suffered at the hands of ‘organised’ religion. The Cathars grievously and brutally. I suppose one major difference is the Cathar belief in reincarnation, wherein a soul moves from body to body until it reaches a perfect state. Thus their vegetarianism. It would not do, to kill and eat a cow. That cow could be carrying the soul of Great-Grandma! Religion is never far from where you are standing, in Allonby.

A skein of geese fly overhead. Arrowhead sharp heading south. Collective nouns are so difficult. It certainly isn’t a ‘gaggle’, that sounds too clumsy for this formation, but it could very well be a ‘wedge’, no, that sounds too solid. I’m settling for ‘skein’. Then I find, a ‘plump of geese’, if they are close together, but is that in flight, or on the ground, or in the water? And what is a ‘nide of geese’, that doesn’t’ fit anything to do with the bird? Earlier I had seen a, ‘what’ of starlings? A ‘clattering’, a ‘chattering’, a ‘cloud’, a ‘murmuration’ or a congregation? Oh dear, I’m on one now. What about gulls? A ‘screech’, a ‘flock’, a ‘flotilla’, a ‘squabble’ or a ‘scavenging’? This is far too reminiscent of trawling through ‘First Aid in English’, by my ten year old self, in my Baines Endowed days, in Blackpool!

Shortly I’m at the the northernmost point of the village, at a very grand building. This is, the gloriously early Victorian, North Lodge. It was built, originally, by, and for, a Quaker banker, Thomas Richardson, in 1830. I wonder how many Quaker bankers there are today? He started as an errand boy, and had a ‘good idea’, when he became a clerk. He, with a partner, started a Bill-broking firm, this was revolutionary, at the time, as it only charged commission to the borrower. Some would say that this was the beginnings of London becoming an international banking powerhouse. He has a lot to answer for, does Thomas Richardson! North Lodge was a holiday home for himself and his wife, Martha Beeby, ‘as was’, a local girl, her of the Fishyard family. Flanking the main house are six cottages, which were for six local widows and spinsters, plus an annual sum of £5. It is still managed by the Allonby Alms House Trust. The main house has been converted into six flats, but the outside has been, faithfully, preserved.

I now turn back, towards my car. Out across the mists of the Solway Firth, to my right, I can see the ghostly shapes of a wind farm. Why aren’t more sails going round? Today is a wind farm day! Isn’t it? It seems to make so much sense to build, if they must be built, these monstrosities, out at sea. Two cyclists hurtle past me towards Silloth, propelled by the strength of the wind. It won’t be as much fun on the way back, into the teeth of the gale. A man comes out of a door to my left wearing a short sleeved, Whitehaven Rugby League shirt. He, merely, nods at this swaddled ‘townie wimp’. Men are men out here!

It was easy to overlook the ordinary housing of the village, when confronted by its grander architecture. But the fishermens’ cottages are equally as important. ‘Moss House’ was built for Thomas and Ann Bouch in 1760. Across the road, ‘JR’ built a cottage in 1746. A little further down ‘DRE’ built a cottage in 1666. In larger towns I have found great difficulty in searching out working class dwellings, amongst the houses of the wealthy and influential. Here they stand cheek by jowl. Unapologetic. They are the houses of the people of Allonby. It’s as if the Quaker belief, in equality, has impressed itself on to the whole town. There doesn’t seem to be any feeling of them and us.

Instead of walking back down the main road, I detour onto The Square. There, facing each other are two magnificent, porticoed, buildings, Allonby Grange and , over the road, The Baths. This bathing venue was built, by the Quakers, in about 1830, with a full, Doric, portico! Here on the Cumberland coast! Sea bathing must have been a major industry in Allonby, in spite of the weather! The sea water was pumped, daily, from the shore into the Bath House. An engineering feat in itself. As I pass, a lady using a Zimmer frame slowly eases her way out of her house. “Bracing day,” she offers,” it certainly keeps the cobwebs off of us!” I can only smile at her fortitude, and yet another local more than willing to strike up a conversation with a complete stranger. This is Cumberland at its best.

Of all the things that this place does not need, a blue plaque is one of them. The village is a distinctive, historical place, ‘in toto’. But there is one, there it is, on the ‘Ship Hotel’. Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins stayed here in 1857 whilst writing their book, ‘The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices’. ‘The Ship’ seems to thrive, still, as the only pub left in the village centre.

I walk back past Glen Cottage. I love Percy Kelly’s painting, but he just didn’t get the feel of this lovely village. Perhaps his paintings tell us more about him than Allonby. They are a pictorial record, of a moment in time, but only a partial record. The village lives, as well as exists, and Percy didn’t seem to grasp that. He has so much in common with the Cumbrian poet, Norman Nicholson. They could relate to an area but not to it’s people. He was an island, and, if I was to be uncharitable, a rather selfish island. That they were both huge talents is undeniable, although, I rather think, I wouldn’t have enjoyed a pint with either of them. But I do admire both of them for their various, wonderful, creative, talents.

Allonby has been a revelation, in the way it has retained its architecture, the history of its pubs, the great Victorians associated with it, the benign Quaker influence and its sociable people. Oh, and Charles Dickens slept there!

As I made to cross the footbridge, outside Glen Cottage, a woman appeared with a small dog on a lead, a Yorkshire Terrier, I think. He growled at me, in passing. “Take no notice. He’s friendly, just a bit of a grump in Winter. I saw you earlier, drawing my house, didn’t I? Can I see it?” I hadn’t realised that I was being watched, so I showed her my effort. Just a simple pencil sketch. “That’s it,” she said,”mind my house is quite easy to draw.” I was dying to ask her if she had known Percy. Had he drawn her house as well? It was extremely doubtful, I know, forty years had passed. But, in the end, I thought better of it. I didn’t want my fragile ego to become the victim of Cumbrian, friendly, frankness. . . again.