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William Oglethorpe, Cheese Maker Of Bermondsey

August 27, 2016
by the gentle author

Celebrating the seventh anniversary of Spitalfields Life with a week of favourite posts from the past year

William Oglethorpe, Cheese Maker of Bermondsey

Everyone knows Cheddar, Stilton, Wensleydale and Caerphilly, but now there is an unexpected new location on the cheese map of Great Britain. It is Bermondsey and the man responsible is William Oglethorpe – seen here bearing his curd cutter as a proud symbol of his domain, like a medieval king wielding a mace of divine authority.

Photographer Tom Bunning & I went along to Kappacasein Dairy under the railway arches beneath the main line out of London Bridge early last Tuesday morning to investigate this astonishing phenomenon. As we stepped from the chill of the autumn morning, we entered the humid warmth of the dairy and encountered a line of empty milk churns.

Already Bill had been awake since quarter to four. He had woken in Streatham then driven to Chiddingstone in Kent and collected six hundred litres of milk. Beyond us, in a separate room with a red floor and a large glass window sat a hundred-year-old copper vat containing that morning’s delivery of milk, which was still warm. Bill with his fellow cheesemakers Jem and Agustin, dressed all in white, worked purposefully in this chamber, officiating like priests over the holy process of conjuring cheese into existence. I stood mesmerised by the sight of the pale buttery liquid swirling against the gleaming copper as Bill employed his curd cutter, manoeuvring it through the milk as you might turn an oar in a river.

Taking a narrow flexible strip of metal, he wrapped a cloth around it so that the rest extended behind like a flag. Holding each end of the strip and grasping the corners of the cloth, Bill leaned over the vat plunging his arms deep down into the whey. When he lifted the cloth again, Agustin reached over with practised ease to take two corners of the cloth as Bill removed the sliver of metal and – hey presto! – they were holding a bundle of cheese, dredged from the mysterious depth of the vat. It was as spellbinding as any piece of magic I have ever seen.

“Cheesemaking is easy, it’s life that is hard,” Bill admitted to me with a disarming grin, when I joined the cheesemakers for their breakfast at a long table and he revealed the long journey he had travelled to arrive in Bermondsey. “I grew up in Zambia,” he explained, “And one day a Swiss missionary came to see my father and asked if I’d like to go to agricultural school in Switzerland.”

“I earned a certificate of competence,” he added proudly, assuring me with a wink, “I’m a qualified peasant.” Bill learnt to make cheese while working on a farm in Provence with a friend from agricultural college. “It was simply a way to sell all the milk from the goats, we made a cheese the same way the other farmers did,” he informed me, “We didn’t know what we were doing.”

Bill took me through to the next railway arch where his cheeses are stored while they mature for up to a year. He cast his eyes lovingly over the neat flat cylinders each impressed with word ‘Bermondsey’ on the side. Every Wednesday, the cheeses are attended to. According to their type, they are either washed or stroked, to spread the mould evenly, and they are all turned before being left to slumber in the chilly darkness for another week.

It was while working for Neals Yard Dairy that Bill decided to set up on his own as cheese maker. Today, Kappacasein is one of handful of newly-established dairies in London producing distinctive cheeses and bypassing the chain of mass production and supermarkets to distribute on their own terms and sell direct to customers. Yet Bill chooses to be self-deprecating in his explanation of why he is making cheese in London. “It’s just because I can’t buy a farm,” he claims, shrugging in enactment of his role of the peasant in exile, cast out from the rural into the urban environment.

“I’m interested in transformation,” Bill confided to me, turning serious as he reached his hand gently down into the vat and lifted up a handful of curds, squeezing out the whey. These would form the second cheese to come from the vat that morning, a ricotta. All across the surface, nodules of cheese were forming, coming into existence as if from primordial matter. “I don’t want to interfere,” Bill continued, thinking out loud and growing philosophical as he became absorbed in observing the cheese form, “Nature’s that much more complicated – if you let it do its own thing that’s much interesting to me than trying to impose anything. It’s about finding an equilibrium with Nature.”

Let me confess I had an ulterior motive for being there. A few weeks ago, I ate a slice of Bill’s Bermondsey cheese and became hooked. It was a flavour that was tangy and complex. One piece was not enough for me. Two pieces were not enough for me. Eventually, I had to seek the source of this wonder and there it was in front of me at last – the Holy Grail of London cheese in Bermondsey.

Cutting the curd

The curds

Squeezing the curds

Scooping out the cheese

The second batch of cheese from the whey is ricotta

Jem Kast, Cheese Maker

Ana Rojas, Yoghurt Maker

Agustin Cobo, Cheese Maker

The story of cheese

William Oglethorpe, Cheese Maker of Bermondsey

Photographs copyright © Tom Bunning

Visit KAPPACASEIN DAIRY, 1 Voyager Industrial Estate, Bermondsey, SE16 4RP

Seventh Annual Report

August 26, 2016
by the gentle author

Today, after publishing more than 2,600 posts and over 31,000 photographs in these pages, we arrive at the end of the seventh year of Spitalfields Life. Customarily I produce a celebratory annual report reflecting upon the anniversary of my starting to write in August 2009, but this year the moment is coloured with sadness by the unexpected death of my good friend and long-term contributing photographer Colin O’Brien a week ago.

My deepest sympathies are with Jan O’Brien, his widow after thirty-five years of married life. We plan to organise a memorial service for Colin and the date will be announced in the autumn, so that you may join us in paying your respects.

Foolishly, when I set out to write Spitalfields Life every day, it never occurred to me that the people I wrote about and whom I worked with might die, or that the acknowledgement of their passing would become part of the project. I have discovered that my ambition to pursue stories no-one else would write carries a certain responsibility, causing me to recognise that if my account is perhaps the only written record of a person’s life then I have a singular duty to do them justice.

Inevitably, many of the people whose stories you read in these pages become friends and, like others in Spitalfields, I feel the tragic loss of Rodney Archer who was such a popular figure in our community. Equally, I was alarmed to get the call from Viscountess Boudica of Bethnal Green the night her flat was burgled and I found myself wedging a broom handle across her kitchen window, where the thieves had entered, to prevent further criminal ingress. Readers will no doubt all be relieved to hear that the reports from Uttoxeter are good and the Viscountess assures me she is settling in well, up in Staffordshire.

The act of producing a story every day makes me very conscious of time passing, of the transient nature of the world and of the rapidity of change. Yet writing is both a consolation and a bulwark against all these things, a means to preserve, record and cherish the fleeting brilliance of life. Consequently, I have never had cause to regret my promise that I made seven years ago to publish a story every day, because it has filled my life with such richness of experience. Undertaking this work has introduced me to so many people that I should never have met in any other circumstances, while the constant search for subject matter forces me to explore the world more conscientiously, uncovering wonders that would otherwise pass me by.

Publishing books is another means to cherish pictures and stories that deserve permanence, and I am very proud of the three Spitalfields Life Books publications for which I was responsible as publisher in the past year – Baddeley Brothers, Cries of London & John Claridge’s East End. Baddeley Brothers tells the story of London’s oldest-established specialist printers, Cries of London celebrates four centuries of artists’ images of street traders and John Claridge’s East End is a candid insider’s portrait of an entire society observed by a distinctive photographic talent.

This November, Spitalfields Life Books is taking the bold step of publishing its first biography. The Boss of Bethnal Green is Julian Woodford’s shrewd account of the breathtakingly-appalling life of Joseph Merceron, Huguenot, gangster and corrupt magistrate, who ruled Bethnal Green & Spitalfields from his house in Brick Lane through violence and intimidation for half a century.

More recent criminals and political miscreants in the East End pale by comparison with Joseph Merceron’s staggering violence and ruthlessness, and Julian Woodford’s eloquent biography – the first on this subject – makes compelling reading for all those interested in eighteenth century London, anyone fascinated by the capital’s criminal history and everyone who loves an exciting true story well told.

And thus, with all these thoughts in mind, I come to the end of this seventh year of Spitalfields Life.

I am your loyal servant

The Gentle Author

The Gentle Author’s cat, Mr Pussy, fifteen years old and still thirsty

Published October 2015

Published November 2015

Published June 2016

For the next week, I shall be publishing favourite stories from the past year and I am delighted to announce that the distinguished Novelist & Historian of London, Gillian Tindall will then take over for the week commencing Monday 5th September to celebrate the publication of her new book The Tunnel Through Time, until my return on Monday 12th September.

You may like to read my earlier Annual Reports

First Annual Report 2010

Second Annual Report 2011

Third Annual Report 2012

Fourth Annual Report 2013

Fifth Annual Report 2014

Sixth Annual Report 2015

Save The Royal Exchange Murals!

August 25, 2016
by the gentle author

Alfred the Great repairing the walls of the City of London by Sir Frank Salisbury, 1912

The Foundation of St Paul’s School, 1509, by William F Yeames, 1905

Reconciliation of the Skinners & Merchant Taylors’ Companies by Lord Mayor Billesden, 1484, by Edwin A Abbey, 1904

Nelson leaving Portsmouth, 18th May 1803, by Andrew C Gow, 1903

King John sealing Magna Carta by Ernest Normand, 1900

A developer proposes inserting a new mezzanine in the Royal Exchange which will bisect London’s greatest murals and mask a 25cm section across most of the pictures with a silicon seal where the new floor touches the surface of the paintings.

So I asked designer Adam Tuck to create the montages at the top of this feature as an illustration of how this intervention may affect the composition of these pictures. I do not think it will be an improvement. The top strip with the words ‘Mezzanine Floor Here’ represents the depth of the floor, while the lower strip gives an indication of how the bulk of the floor is likely to mask the picture for a viewer.

It was a greivous error when obstacles were first placed in front of these paintings in the eighties, yet the existing shops do not touch the murals and it has always been possible to walk around the restaurant on the first floor and view the sequence of paintings from above. The developer claims that their new proposal will make the murals more visible, when it actually chops most of them in two, making it impossible to view them in their entirety.

The justification for turning the interior of William Tite’s Grade I listed Royal Exchange of 1844 into a Duty-Free-type shopping mall selling glitzy gifts is that this is necessary to make it ‘sustainable,’ when revenues earned by the City’s other properties are more than sufficient to sustain the Exchange.

It is a disappointing course of action, especially since the Royal Exchange is essentially a public building and, in my opinion, the City has a moral duty to maintain it as an unobstructed showcase for all to see these important murals telling the story of our capital.

Below you can view the full sequence of paintings in their glory. Arnold Bennett saw them and wrote, ‘You have to pinch yourself in order to be sure that you have not fallen into a tranced vision.’

You can view the planning application and object on the City of London Planning website

You can read the Victorian Society’s letter of objection by clicking here

The developer’s proposal

The murals as they were intended to be viewed, without obstacles

Phoenicians trading with early Britons on the coast of Cornwall by Lord Frederick Leighton, 1895

Alfred the Great repairing the walls of the City of London by Sir Frank Salisbury, 1912

William the Conqueror granting a Charter to the Citizens of London by John Seymour Lucas, 1898

William II building the Tower of London by Charles Goldsborough Anderson, 1911

King John sealing Magna Carta by Ernest Normand, 1900

Sir Henry Picard, Master of the Vinters’ Company entertaining Kings of England, France, Scotland Denmark & Cyprus by Albert Chevallier Tayler, 1903

Sir Richard Whittington dispensing his Charities by Henrietta Rae, 1900

Philip the Good presenting the charter to the Merchant Adventurers by Elija A Cox, 1916

Henry VI Battle of Barnet 1471, the Trained Bands marching to the support of Edward IV by John H Amschewitz, 1911

Reconciliation of the Skinners & Merchant Taylors’ Companies by Lord Mayor Billesden, 1484, by Edwin A Abbey, 1904

The Crown offered to Richard III at Baynard’s Castle by Sigismund Goetze, 1898

The Foundation of St Paul’s School, 1509, by William F Yeames, 1905

The Opening the first Royal Exchange by Queen Elizabeth I by Ernest Crofts, 1899

Charles I demanding the Five Members at the Guildhall, 1641-42, by Solomon J Solomon, 1897

The Great Fire of London, 1666, by Stanhope Forbes, 1899

Founding of the Bank of England, 27th July 1694, by George Harcourt, 1904

Nelson leaving Portsmouth, 18th May 1803, by Andrew C Gow, 1903

Destruction of the Second Royal Exchange in 1838 by Stanhope Forbes, 1899

Opening of the Royal Exchange by Her Majesty Queen Victoria, 28th October 1844, by Robert W Macbeth, 1895

Women’s Work in the Great War, 1914-1918, by Lucy Kemp-Welch, 1922 (Only a black and white image is available)

Blocking of Zeebrugge Waterway, St George’s Day, 23rd April 1918, by W L Wyllie, 1920

Their Majesties King George V & Queen Mary visiting the Battle Districts in France, 1917, by Sir Frank Salisbury, 1917

National Peace Thanksgiving Service on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral, 6th July 1919, by Sir Frank Salisbury, 1919

Modern Commerce by Sir Frank Brangwyn, 1906

Images courtesy of the Mercers’ Company

You may also like to take a look at

Dorothy Annan’s Murals

An Excursion To Tudeley

August 24, 2016
by the gentle author

Today I publish an account of my last assignment with Photographer Colin O’Brien, who died last week, a day’s excursion with a coachload of East Enders picking blackcurrants in Kent organised by Company Drinks. Details of a Memorial Service for Colin O’Brien will be announced in the autumn.

Colin & I met at quarter-to-eight, in the cool of the morning, at Empress Coaches in Bethnal Green and were the driver’s only passengers until we reached Dagenham, where he pulled up on the pavement next to the library and eager blackcurrant pickers embarked clutching their pots and bags.

Mid-morning, the coach was winding down a Kentish farm lane and all seemed well until an autocratic landowner driving a four-by-four pulled up beside us, exasperated at being unable to pass. When it was explained that we were a coachload of blackcurrant gleaners, he feigned alarm as if had caught a gang of thieves red-handed and, after a tense conversation with various agricultural employees, it became clear that we were expected at a neighbouring farm. As the coach returned down the lane, Colin & I drew great amusement in imagining this ‘gentleman farmer,’ breathing a sigh of relief that no ‘dirty cockneys’ would get their hands on his blackcurrants this year.

Arriving at our destination, we passed through the tiny village of Tudeley, lined with twisted weather-boarded cottages, before we saw the field of blackcurrants, stretched out in long lines and harbouring their purple fruit beneath dense foliage. These rows had already been picked mechanically several times, as we could tell by the thousands of blackcurrants littering the ground, but since it was no longer viable to harvest the bushes again this season we were permitted to glean the remaining fruit that would otherwise go to waste.

With barely a word, everyone set to work, pleased to be in the fresh air after sitting on the coach and excited by the prospect of blackcurrants. Pulling back branches revealed purple fruit hanging in the shade, sharp on the tongue yet irresistibly tangy. A disparate bunch, we were all unified in our delight at blackcurrants and took the opportunity to taste as many as we could, occasionally whooping with joy to discover branches heavy with fruit concealed beneath the leaves.

Colin worked his way up and down the rows with his camera, and had no problem finding subjects who were eager to show off their precious harvest of blackcurrants, while I picked pint-sized cups of fruit which I donated to boost the haul of some younger pickers.

At lunchtime, while Colin & I took a break from the heat of the sun in the shade of a hedge, eating our sandwiches with the other pickers, I confessed to him that I had spied a beautiful country pub far away across the field and I could not resist the thought that it would be a very attractive prospect to pay a visit for refreshment. Colin confided that to me that the very same thought had occurred to him and confirmed that he had taken his set of portraits. Yet we both agreed that we felt uncomfortable admitting this idea to the other pickers, even though we had effectively completed our assignment.

Consulting the map of Tudeley, while munching my sandwiches, I noticed that there was a church at the centre of the village. ‘Why don’t we go for a walk up the road and visit the church?’ I suggested to Colin and then, with his assent, we made our departure from the group, explaining our purpose and sloping off down the lane. ‘Shall we go in and have a drink now or shall we visit the church first?’ I asked Colin once we arrived at the pub. ‘Let’s walk up to the church first,’ Colin decided, and I dutifully accompanied him up the hill, leaving the pub behind yet hopeful of a swift return.

The first wonder we encountered was Tudeley Hall, a charismatic half-timbered medieval pile with twisted brick chimneys and a line of old red roses blooming in the front garden. Tall trees lined our path upon either side, arching in a vault over the road and filtering the rays of the sun to spectacular effect. ‘You could wait for days for the light to be as it is now,’ said Colin, as he pressed his shutter to capture a picture of the lane shimmering in hazy sunlight.

Turning off the main road, we approached the church up a pathway lined by well-kept cottages with gardens in flower, arriving at the graveyard dignified by ancient yews, and sat there upon a bench to admire the view across the farmland of Kent in the stillness of the summer afternoon. We were ready to walk back down the hill to the pub, when we decided to go inside the church and take a look.

An unexpected revelation awaited us.  Leaving the dazzling glare behind, it took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the low light inside, where coloured glass gleamed with rich hues illuminating the gloom of the shadowy interior. All Saints, Tudeley, is the only church in the world to have all the windows designed by Marc Chagall.

We learnt the poignant story behind these windows – how local landowners Sir Henry & Lady D’Avigdor-Goldsmid commissioned Chagall to create the east window as a memorial to their daughter Sarah, who drowned aged twenty-one in a sailing accident in 1963, and how, when Chagall came in 1967 to see his worked installed, he fell in love with this small bare church and said, ‘I will do them all.’

Spellbound by the vision, Colin photographed each of the windows, beginning on the north side with the creation of the world from the blue void and culminating in a pair of south-facing windows executed in the golden tones of the sun, with images dissolving into light. Realising that we had to leave if we were not to keep the blackcurrant pickers waiting or miss the coach back, I only persuaded Colin to go once I had taken some pictures of him standing beneath the large east window.

I checked my watch as we walked sharply back down the hill and, when we reached the pub, I realised it was too late for a drink but instead I went inside and asked if I could use the toilet. Once I emerged from the bathroom, Colin was holding two bottles of lemonade with straws in them and we sipped upon them as we walked up the lane to the coach.

The blackcurrant pickers were waiting for us, their lips and fingers stained with purple juice. ‘We know where you’ve been!’ they teased, as we climbed on board the coach, confronting us with the realisation of how transparent our departure from the field had appeared. Fortunately, Colin was able to show his photographs of the Marc Chagall windows, serving as both our alibi and as illustrations of our adventure.

I was thinking what a lesson the day had been – that the instinct to stray was one that should not be resisted because you never know what wonders you might discover – when I fell asleep. Colin & I woke up in London and he descended from the coach at Hackney Downs, where the days’ harvest was delivered to be cooked and bottled with lemon juice, prior to being made into blackcurrant soda. I stayed with the coach until it reached the depot off Mare St beside the canal and walked back from there to Spitalfields, with my plastic box of blackcurrants in my bag.

The excursion to Tudeley was our final assignment, our last day together and the last time I saw Colin O’Brien.

Photographs copyright © Estate of Colin O’Brien

Movements, Deals & Drinks is a project by international artist group Myvillages, founded in 2003 by Kathrin Böhm, Wapke Feenstra & Antje Schiffers. The project was commissioned by Create and is registered as a Community Interest Company with the name Company Drinks. Company Drinks is supported by the Borough of Barking & Dagenham.

You may also like to read about these other Company Drinks projects photographed by Colin O’Brien

Hop Picking at Lamberhurst

Scything on Walthamstow Marshes

Julie Price, Artist

August 23, 2016
by the gentle author

Later this week, I shall be publishing my final assignment with Colin O’Brien –  but today I am delighted to introduce you to the joyous paintings of Julie Price, whose debut exhibition opens in the New Artist Fair at the Old Truman Brewery on 9th September and runs until 11th September.

Elder St

Folgate St

Dennis Severs’ House, Folgate St

Wilkes St

Townhouse, Fournier St

Ten Bells

Leila’s Shop, Calvert Avenue

Arnold Circus

Wilton’s Music Hall

Julie Price in Spitalfields

Paintings copyright © Julie Price

You may also like to take a look at

Peta Bridle, Artist

John Allin, Artist

Eleanor Crowe, Artist

Alfred Daniels, Artist

Doreen Fletcher, Artist