Thursday, September 23, 2010

A Favourite September Tradition: Sunday

Most years during the Open House weekend, we stick to to the inner boroughs, but this year, with our newly expansive view of London, exploring an outer borough or two seemed appropriate. We set off on Sunday bright and early for the farthest west borough of Hillingdon.

First stop was St Mary's in Harefield, one of our 1000 Best Churches, which is decorated outside and in with fantastic carvings and monuments.
An ancestor of Lady Diana Spencer lies here.
Sunday was the congregations seasonal Harvest Festival, and the church was beautifully decorated.
Hop vines and apples decorate the piers
A magnificent vegetable arrangement

Hillingdon was once rural land dotted with hamlets and villages dating back to medieval settlements.  During the First World War this empty quarter, 14 miles west of central London, was used for landing aircraft. The hamlet of Heath Row was demolished as the airport began to expand with the growth of air travel in the 1930s. In the late 1940s, the government purchased land from the village of Harmondsworth  to build the runways, and the surrounding hamlets were subsumed by the enormous airport.

Our next stop was the village of Harmondsworth to see the magnificent Great Barn dating to 1426.  The previous government had approved a Third Runway for Heathrow that would have obliterated the remnants of medieval Harmondsworth still extant including the barn. Fortunately, the new government overturned approval for the scheme as one of their first acts.
190 feet long and 40 feet high
Dubbed the Cathedral of Middlesex by John Betjeman 
Original early-15th century wood structure is intact
In anticipation of the windfall to come with the runway expansion, an offshore Gibraltar company purchased the barn for £1 a few years ago and has let it deteriorate. Last year, English Heritage (the public-private quango that takes care of historic public property) stepped in to repair the roof to prevent further structural damage. EH is now suing the owners and may be able to get a mandatory purchase order if the company does not respond.

We moved on to another tithing barn in Ruislip which is still part of an extant medieval manor complex managed for commercial and public use by the town. Manor Farm has been occupied since the Normans arrived and built a Motte and Bailey fortress.
The Motte and Bailey site
The present Manor House dates to the 16th century, and has been refurbished and turned into a local history museum.

The Tithing Barn is said to be the second largest in England and was hosting a wonderful crafts fair with food stalls. The huge Tithing Barns were used to store the harvested crops owed to the Lord of the Manor and the Church as rent by the farmers who worked the land.
The Tithing Barn
Other Manor outbuildings are used as a public library, workshop space for artists, and meeting rooms.

We then drove east to the neighbouring borough of Harrow to visit Pinner, a medieval town that deserves more time than we had this afternoon. We stopped off at West House, once a gentleman's country estate set in a private park which is now a public park, and the house has recently been refurbished and opened as a museum exhibiting a collection of artwork by Heath Robinson, a one time resident of Pinner. Robinson's great love was landscape painting, but he made his living with illustrations and satirical cartoons.
The First Aeronautical Wedding was on display
West House will rotate the Robinson work on display so we will have to return regularly for further treats in the gallery and in the lovely cafe on site.

Finally, as the afternoon wound down, we arrived at the Church of St Lawrence in Little Stanmore, one of our 1000 Best Churches, and what a stunner. James Brydges, Paymaster General to the Duke of Marlborough, made himself a fortune and was made Duke of Chandos. He married a North London girl with a nice house which he elevated into a Baroque palace to match his boss's Blenheim. He incurred so much debt, his son had to sell off everything, a famous Georgian Fire Sale that furnished other great houses across the country. Chandos took on the medieval parish church and turned it into a Baroque masterpiece with grisaille painted Evangelists and Virtues on the side walls, Bellucci murals on the end walls, and a Laguerre decorated ceiling. Chandos hired Handel to compose for him, and the organ with Grinling Gibbons carved ornamentation, was built for Handel to play the commissioned work.

The Duke's Mausoleum stands in a side chamber, designed by James Gibbs, architect of some of London's most famous Georgian churches including St Martin-in-the-Fields in Trafalgar Square, the template for most of New England's lovely spired churches.

Looking through the Open House booklet, I can see that in the past two months, we have visited, or at least been through, nearly all of London's boroughs. But the list of places to see and to walk grows longer rather than shorter, the more places we visit. I know London never ranks high on the pervasive lists of the "Best Places/Cities to Live/Retire" etc. because it is dirty and crime ridden and expensive, according to the criteria embraced by list makers, but I can't imagine a better mix of cultural landscapes, available activities, and international reach, all tied together by a public transport system that continues to expand, than this city in which I am lucky to now live.

A Favourite September Tradition: Saturday

Open House London is an annual event that comes around on the third weekend of September. Nearly every borough participates (What's your problem, Barnet?) with both public and private buildings open for visits. Architects hoping to drum up new business offer their recent work, local museums and churches find it a great way to remind residents of their existence, and buildings which in the workaday world restrict entrance to members or employees grant access to the curious for this weekend. In mid-August a 70-page booklet begins to appear in libraries and participating museums listing this year's options by borough. Organised people can immediately get on the phone to reserve spots for places that require pre-booking. People like me, just page through and formulate a dozen possible itineraries.

Saturday was a half day because an important stamp show is held on this same weekend, and Bob is a keen philatelist. We did manage to see three churches on Saturday afternoon. Although Barnet does not participate, the Hampstead Garden Suburb, which is in Barnet, does have a special page in the Open House booklet. The Suburb is just one stop north of us on the Tube, and the bus that is still conveniently, but irritatingly, stopping across from our flat takes us there in a few minutes. Henrietta Barnett, a turn of the 20th century do-gooder, inspired by Ebenezer Howard's utopian urban planning volume Garden Cities for To-Morrow, embarked on her own project in 1907 by hiring visionary planner Raymond Unwin and architect Edward Lutyens to create a Garden City for London. Like most utopian suburbs, this one ended up expensive and populated by the upper middle-class who could afford Utopia.

Lutyens created an elegant Central Square with an Institute for adult education — a crucial element in Ebenezer Howard's plan for improving the working class masses who would, theoretically, make up a percentage of a Garden City's residents — on one side, flanked by two churches facing each other across the square. The Institute is now a highly academic girls grammar school named for Henrietta Barnett. Lutyens's St Jude-on-the-Hill (Church of England) is magnificent, with an interior completely painted with murals.

Across the Square is the Free Church, for Dissenting residents of the Suburb, a much simpler building with an undecorated interior.

We then traveled into Bloomsbury to visit a church that I had read about and was anxious to see. The Lumen Church is a Dissenting (United Reformed) Church with a long history connected to London's Gaelic population. Various church buildings came and went over two centuries. A York Minster imitation was damaged in wartime bombing and replaced in the 1960s with the present smaller building. The surrounding property was used for parking lots and church halls. A few years ago the congregation sold the adjoining properties for millions of pounds, and used the money to build a new church within the existing walls. The architecture partnership Theis + Kahn won a RIBA award for their work on Lumen and have since been nominated for the Stirling Prize.
Lumen's Exterior: c.1960
 New Front Window: Sculpture and Cafe
The Cloister
The Sanctuary with Window  from 1960s church
The Sacred Space
The Sacred Space rises through the Sanctuary
Looking up from inside the Sacred Space

 Three interesting churches, and home again for another Saturday night with Mad Men.

The North: Friday

17 September 2010
Home again today, but yesterday's all day car ride didn't make much southerly progress. We spanned the length and breadth of Cumbria, and ended up in a perfect chocolate-box country town, Kirkby Lonsdale, that I had never heard of, but is apparently a prized destination for many. We booked a comfortable room and ate a fantastic dinner and breakfast at The Sun which helpfully provided a copy of a walk to something called Ruskin's View in their information notebook.

First stop was the church, one of our 1000 Best Churches, directly behind the pub. A Norman church with fat carved piers just like Durham's.
I love the Rainbow Banners
Each pier has a different carved pattern
A Green Man capital
Continuing through the churchyard we arrived at Ruskin's View, which turns out to be a spot where Turner painted and which Ruskin considered to be the finest natural landscape in the country. It is pretty spectacular.
The walk continued around the outskirts of Kirkby (pronounced Kirby) and back to the Market Square.
The 13th c. Market Cross in the Swine Market
The River Lune

The town sheep
The 13th c. bridge

By midday we started on the long ride back to London, making a few rest stops on the way. First in Saltaire, a Victorian planned town, built by Titus Salt for the employees of his textile mill. Another UNESCO World Heritage Site, but we had no time to walk beyond the mill building for photos that offer a flavour of the townscape. The fabulous church was under layers of scaffolding, so I couldn't even snap that.
Salt's Mill
We also stopped in Sheffield, England's Steel City before deindustrialisation. The new museum complex includes a small metalwork gallery, a small crafts gallery, a special exhibits gallery (closed for mounting a new display), and the weirdly presented Ruskin Gallery. Ruskin's enthusiasms were prodigious, and one of them was to open a chain of museums in the industrial cities to bring culture to the masses and to train their eyes to appreciate beauty. Sheffield's was the only one to open and to close, leaving the city with a Ruskin Collection of bits and bobs intended to elevate common thoughts. The new Gallery is a hodge podge of rocks and minerals, copies of famous Italian paintings, watercolours of Venice, renderings of architectural ornamentaion, Audubon birds, and hundreds of other items. The running theme of commentary accompanying the display is that you too can be trained to appreciate beauty just as Ruskin desired, and thus inspired to go forth and be creative. Whatever.

And that completes our five days in The North.

The North: Thursday

16 September 2010
We spent much too much time in the car today, but the best crosses are not conveniently located, and the scenery was spectacular. Having seen Bewcastle on Wednesday, we heeded Pevsner's rating of the best European art of the 7th century and headed off to Ruthwell in Scotland. The Scottish border is sharply oblique, and not far from Hadrian's Wall in the west of Cumbria. We crossed the border at the famous illicit marriage town of Gretna Green — with a billboard hoarding advertising a marriage chapel at the side of the road.

Ruthwell's Cross is inside the church in a purpose-built extension with the base set below floor level so visitors can see the best carvings at eye level.
The Archer beneath the restored crosspiece
Christ Glorified standing on beasts
Mary Magdalen washing Christ's feet
Healing the man born blind

Birds and Vines as at Bewcastle
Runes carved into the border of each side are the words of an
Anglo-Saxon poem The Dream of the Rood possibly by Caedmon.
The runes were probably carved 200 years after the Cross was made.
The Visitation
Ruthwell is dated early 8th century, slightly later than Bewcastle, and the carvings include more figurative work illustrating specific Christian symbols and Biblical parables. The figurative panels include identification inscriptions in Latin.

We then crossed back into Cumbria and drove south through the gorgeous Lake District to see the Gosforth Cross.

On the way we stopped in Torpenhow, one of the 1000 Best Churches which offered these wonderful carved capitals facing each other across the chancel arch.
The Good enjoying Heaven
The Evil suffering Hell 
Gosforth's Cross is dated c.940 when northern England was ruled by the Vikings, so Gosforth is  a Norse Cross with carvings that reflect Scandinavian culture including the traditional gods.
The Gosforth Cross is round at the bottom like a tree trunk
 and squared off at the top
Longinus piercing Christ's side at the Crucifixion
Odin on his steed Sleipnir
A Dragon

Gosforth Church was a treasure trove of carving reflecting the unique mix of Saxon and Viking culture in coastal Cumbria where the Vikings were not plunderers, but settlers in this later period of migration from Scandinavia. The Saxon church was refitted by the Norsemen who converted to Christianity. Next the Normans rebuilt the church in the 12th century. Finally, a Victorian rehab turned up treasures rubbished by earlier generations.

These are Hogbacks, probably tombs, from the same period as the Cross or,
 Pevsner thinks, a bit later. They were found during the church renovation in 1896
used in the foundation of the 12th century rebuilding of the church.

 The Saint's Tomb

The Fishing Stone illustrating the Christianisation of a Norse myth.
Above is a hart, a Christian symbol of conversion and baptism.
In the centre is the serpent representing evil for pagans and Christians.
In the boat is Thor trying, but failing, to kill Midgardsorm, the World Serpent.
Christ 1 - Thor 0