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Lilo Blum, Hyde Park Equestrian

October 8, 2019
by the gentle author

‘The first time I rode in Hyde Park was in 1937…’

Born in Germany in 1927, Lilo and her family came to London as refugees escaping the Nazis in 1937 when she was just ten years old, but within a couple of years she had set up her own livery stable next to Hyde Park. Lilo Blum’s Riding Stables flourished for forty-five years as a popular London institution, occupying Lilo’s entire working life and proving an irresistible magnet for any celebrity, jetsetter or socialite who enjoyed a canter in the Park.

My meeting with Lilo Blum came about when her nephew Edward recognised a photograph of his aunt’s stables in Grosvenor Park Crescent in 1952 by Israel Bidermanas published on Spitalfields Life and wrote to me. Naturally, I jumped at the opportunity to interview Lilo at her swish flat in Park Lane with a magnificent view over Hyde Park and hear her triumphant story in her own words.

“I was four or five when I learnt to ride. My brother was three years older than me and I remember he rode in a pony race, and I cried because I wanted to ride as well. So they got me a quiet pony and I rode round the course, quite a few miles behind the others, but at least it kept me quiet. Working with horses runs in our family and my father was a well-known veterinarian. He could tell at one glance if a horse was lame, because in those days they didn’t have x-rays and you had to be able to just say what was wrong.

I started my riding stables in 1943 when I was sixteen years old. I collected threepenny bits in an old whisky bottle and then I went with my father to the big sales at Newmarket where they sold racehorses. We bought one for fifty-five guineas and I called him ‘Pick-up.’ After I had bought him, I thought ‘What am I going to do with him?’ because he was baby racehorse and unbroken, so I couldn’t use him in a riding school. But I was lucky because I had some friends who worked at Knightsbridge barracks and they agreed to keep him in their stable for me.

The sergeant offered to ask his commanding officer if I would be allowed to take my horse riding from the barracks and, luckily for me, they allowed it during the war. The sergeant broke in my horse, and got him nice and quiet and civilised, so people could eventually ride him and I knew he wouldn’t throw anybody off.  Then I sold ‘Pick-up’ to the Huntley & Palmers people and he raced for them and won some races, which was good for me. I can’t remember how much I got but it was enough to buy some ponies and that was how I started my riding stable.

The first time I rode in Hyde Park was in 1937. Before the war, you could see a thousand horses riding down Rotten Row. You had to dress up properly for riding then and the ladies they rode side-saddle – I tried it once, I didn’t like it. There were hundreds and hundreds of stables in the mews around Hyde Park then. I remember when all the mews were horses. It’ll never come back again. After the war, people didn’t dress up for riding any more. Society changed.

I had around twenty horses in my stable and lived for forty-two years in Knightsbridge in Old Barrack Yard, next to The Grenadier. I’ve spent many hours in their with some of our people and I’ve seen a few landlords come and go. If I had a penny for every time people asked me ‘Where’s The Grenadier?’ without question I’d be a millionaire. Most of my friends I met through horses.

I love horses but there were some anxious moments. It was always a gamble because you’d buy a horse in the country yet if it was no good in the traffic you might just as well get rid of it. My father taught me a lot and I had a great friend, an Irish racehorse trainer who was very good at picking out horses.

My favourite horse, we called it ‘Decision’ because we saw it at a sale and my father wasn’t quite sure about it but then the owner asked, ‘What’s your decision?’ He was very popular and he made me a lot of money. He lived to be old and he worked really hard and we thought ‘Well, he’s done well for us,’ so we turned him out in a field but he didn’t like it. He was so used to working and being in the traffic that he died soon after.

With horses, it’s seven days a week, twelve hours a day starting at 5:30am. Often, I would have just locked up and put all the horses away when a whole lot of people would come down, but I would never refuse them. I would unlock the door again, get the horses out and show them all around Hyde Park. It’s nice when people appreciate what you do for them.

Once I started my stable in Grosvenor Crescent Mews, I had loads and loads of famous people coming to ride. Zsa Zsa Gabor kept her horse with us for a little while, but she liked to go one better so she took him down to the Duke of Marlborough in Wiltshire where she galloped all across his lawn and he wasn’t too happy. So she brought her horse back again and rode him out in Hyde Park. Then she decided to go abroad and asked me to sell her horse, and he became the symbol of Lloyds Bank and starred in ‘Black Beauty’ with Vivien Leigh and ‘Knights of the Round Table’ with Robert Taylor and Ava Gardner. A very famous horse.

I remember one day we had our ponies out and the Household Cavalry were training and making an awful lot of noise, so I called Andrew Parker-Bowles, who was officer in charge, and said, ‘You’re upsetting my ponies!’ To be fair he was very nice about it, and he was always very nice to me after that. In fact, one of my horses had an injury and he took it into the barracks to have it treated, so it didn’t do any harm to tell him off.

Topol lived in the house on the corner and we had Jean Simmons & Stewart Grainger at the top of the mews with their daughter Tracy who used to come and mess about with the ponies. Paul Newman came, Raquel Welch was another regular, and Stirling Moss – he lived in our mews, I knew him when he was a kid.

Luciano Pavarotti was a heavy man and he used to sit at the front of the horse, so I said to him, ‘Hey mister, you give my horse a sore back! Sit further back in the saddle.’ Mohammad Ali rode one of our horses in the Park too, but after I shook hands with him I felt mine was going to drop off! Jacqueline Kennedy’s sister’s husband, the Polish Prince Radziwiłł kept his horses with us and that’s how I got to know the Kennedys. I taught the little children, Caroline & John Kennedy to ride but I always had to have a police escort when I took them out.

Sometimes we got these pushy mums. I’ll never forget one lady, she said to me, ‘When are you going to teach my little girl to trot?’ and I said, ‘Give her a bit of a chance, she’s only two years old.’ I told the little kid, ‘Your mummy wants me to teach you to trot,’ and she did it once it, but she couldn’t get the rhythm so she said, ‘Enough now!’ I’ll never forget that but, in time, she turned out good.

I ran my stables until 1988 and it was a great success. Eventually the Duke of Westminster built the Lanesborough Hotel at Hyde Park Corner and he didn’t want any more horses in the mews. It was very disappointing after forty-five years, but life goes on. Everything has changed so much hasn’t it?

It has been an interesting life I must say. You’ve got to make the best of it. I keep telling my friends, ‘It’s a rehearsal not the real thing,’ but they don’t take any notice. I made money and blew money like everybody else. I was lucky I always worked for myself which is a great thing. I’ve done alright. I can’t complain! If I see a horse I like out in the park from my window, I still think ‘That one’s nice, that would have done me nicely.'”

Lilo Blum’s Riding Stables, Grosvenor Park Crescent W1 – as photographed by Israel Bidermanas in 1952. Lilo’s dog Peggy sleeps in the foreground.

The Grenadier, Old Barrack Yard, Lilo Blum’s local for half a century

Archive photographs courtesy © Bishopsgate Institute

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Peter Rayner, Baker, Bell Tuner & Train Driver

October 7, 2019
by the gentle author

Any readers who can give some spare time over coming weeks are invited to a meeting of the campaign to Save the Whitechapel Bell Foundry at Bow Church, 230 Bow Rd, E3 3AH, this Thursday 10th October at 6pm. Plans are underway for a large public rally and march in Whitechapel in November.

Peter Rayner

It is rare that you meet anyone with such an array of practical skills and accomplishments as Peter Rayner. We met at the Save the Whitechapel Bell Foundry meeting at East London Mosque in September and then I visited Peter at his home in Stratford where he told me his story.

“On my father’s side, I am an East End boy and, on my mother’s side, I am Leicestershire. They met when dad was in the army and mum was in the land army in Kent but although I was born and bred in Hertfordshire I consider myself an East Ender.

I always wanted to be a train driver but I left school and went into catering. My parents told me there would be more money in it. I had always been interested in making bread and cakes. I got all my qualifications and I worked for a small family bakers in Enfield but, when the old boy died, I was unemployed.

Through my bellringing, I heard there was a job going at Whitechapel Bell Foundry so I tried my hand there. I had learnt to ring bells at St Mary’s Cheshunt at the age of twenty.

I joined the foundry in October 1973 when I was twenty-four. My job was tuning bells, shaving metal off the inside. They normally cast bells sharp and by increasing the internal diameter you bring the note down in pitch to what you want. They taught me, the only place you can learn to make bells is in a bell foundry. The first job I worked on with Wallace Spragget and John Slater was the bells for All Saints, Worcester. Wally had worked Gillett & Johnston’s bell foundry which was in Croydon and, when it shut down, he transferred to Whitechapel. He had spent his life tuning bells and he took me under his wing and taught me.

The Whitechapel Bell Foundry was an old world place, still in the Victorian era, but I enjoyed working there because there was so much history. When I was there they demolished the old chain shop which was a bit ramshackle and built the new extension on the back.

Apart from the odd spell when it was quiet, were always fairly busy. When people asked me how many people worked at the bell foundry, I used to joke, ‘Only about half of us!’ It was thirty-five people but about fifteen were only concentrating on the handbells, while the rest of us were doing the big bells, making the moulds, casting the bells, tuning the bells and building the frames.

The moulds are a mixture of London clay, horse hair, goats hair and various types of sand so when it is mixed up it is a form of black pudding, though I would not recommend eating it.

I liked working there because I have always enjoyed working with my hands. I was working on old bells coming in for retuning, because they did not know how to tune bells in the old days. Some would be five, six or seven hundred years old. It will be two, three or five hundred years before the bells I worked on need any further attention. Bells do not often wear out. They get dirty and covered in crap from pigeons. Generally bells come in because the frame and fittings are completely worn out.

I worked on the bells for Durham, Gloucester and Canterbury Cathedrals, and also Hexham Abbey, Barking Abbey and Romsey Abbey. In London, Chelsea Old Church, Wimbledon, St Leonards Streatham and St Clement Danes among others. So I can say I have left my mark in bells.

The largest bell I was involved with was the American Bicentennial Bell cast in 1975 for the celebrations in 1976 in Philadelphia. It was about seven feet in diameter and weighed five and a half tons. A big bell. We did replica Liberty Bells, I was involved in casting fifteen of them. The plan was to put one in every state of the union, but how far they got with that I do not know. They were still knocking them out when I left the foundry in 1987.

When I first joined the bell foundry, it was run by Douglas and William Hughes. Alan who became the next bell founder was Bill Hughes’ son. He took over the business when they retired. Douglas Hughes had been an army officer and if you did something wrong you got a tongue lashing, but that was the end of it. Bill Hughes was quieter and he did all the working inspections and paperwork, getting the estimates done. I got on alright with both of them.

After Wally Spragget died, I took over bell tuning but by then I was married with a mortgage and things were getting a bit tight financially, so I had to find a better paid job. I got a job as a guard on the Underground, it was double the wages. After I finished my training, I was based at Golders Green but after nine months I was transferred to the East End depots. I became a train driver on the District Line based in Earls Court and Parsons Green for ten years.

When the Jubilee Line opened I knew there would be a depot in the East End, so I put my application in and transferred to Stratford in 1997. I was a test train driver until the Jubilee Line extended and I was on it for about ten years, so I fulfilled my ambition to be a train driver. I had a really rough day once, one of those days when everything goes wrong on the tube and I got home home late. I slammed my retirement notice in next morning and got a full pension.

That was eleven years ago but I am still heavily involved in bell ringing and I have bought a canal boat and I do model railways. I do most of the cooking at home and, occasionally, I provide bread and cake for bellringers dinners and things like that.

I am very sad that the Whitechapel Bell Foundry has closed because I spent more than ten years of my life there. Nowadays, I am on the canals and I have seen the example of what could happen at Middleport Pottery near Stoke on Trent. I am very impressed with what they have done. Every time I go past on my boat I stop there. When I was there three weeks ago, the apprentices were selling the stuff they made and we bought a complete dinner service.

The developers who want to turn the Whitechapel Bell Foundry into a boutique hotel plan to have a foundry casting handbells in the same place where they serve the food, but the two will not mix because of the air pollution. I do not think the hotel will work because there are already lots of hotels in Whitechapel.”

Peter Rayner tuning a bell at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in the seventies

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The Harvest Festival Of The Sea

October 6, 2019
by the gentle author

Today we preview the annual Fish Harvest Festival which will be held at St Mary-at-Hill next Sunday October 13th

Frank David, Billingsgate Porter for sixty years

Thomas à Becket was the first rector of St Mary-at-Hill in the City of London, the ancient church upon a rise above the old Billingsgate Market, where each year at this season the Harvest Festival of the Sea is celebrated – to give thanks for the fish of the deep that we all delight to eat, and which sustained a culture of porters and fishmongers here for centuries.

The market itself may have moved out to the Isle of Dogs in 1982, but that does not stop the senior porters and fishmongers making an annual pilgrimage back up the cobbled hill where, as young men, they once wheeled barrows of fish in the dawn. For one day a year, this glorious church designed by Sir Christopher Wren is recast as a fishmongers, with an artful display of gleaming fish and other exotic ocean creatures spilling out of the porch, causing the worn marble tombstones to glisten like slabs in a fish shop, and imparting an unmistakeably fishy aroma to the entire building. Yet it all serves to make the men from Billingsgate feel at home, in their chosen watery element – as I discovered when I went along to join the congregation.

Frank David and Billy Hallet, two senior porters in white overalls, both took off their hats – or “bobbins” as they are called – to greet me. These unique pieces of headgear once enabled the porters to balance stacks of fish boxes upon their heads, while the brim protected them from any spillage. Frank – a veteran of eighty-nine years old – who was a porter for sixty years from the age of eighteen, showed me the bobbin he had worn throughout his career, originally worn by his grandfather Jim David in Billingsgate in the eighteen-nineties and then passed down by his father Tim David.

Of sturdy wooden construction, covered with canvas and bitumen, stitched and studded, these curious glossy black artefacts seemed almost to have a life of their own. “When you had twelve boxes of kippers on your head, you knew you’d got it on,” quipped Billy, displaying his “brand new” hat, made only in the nineteen thirties. A mere stripling of seventy-three, still fit and healthy, Billy started his career at Christmas 1959 in the old Billingsgate market carrying boxes on his bobbin and wheeling barrows of fish up the incline past St Mary-at-Hill to the trucks waiting in Eastcheap. Caustic that the City of London revoked the porters’ licences after more than one hundred and thirty years – “Our traditions are disappearing,” he confided to me in the churchyard, rolling his eyes and striking a suitably elegiac Autumnal note.

Proudly attending the  spectacular display of fish in the porch, I met Eddie Hill, a fishmonger who started his career in 1948. He recalled the good times after the war when fish was cheap and you could walk across Lowestoft harbour stepping from one herring boat to the next. “My father said, ‘We’re fishing the ocean dry and one day it’ll be a luxury item,'” he told me, lowering his voice, “And he was right, now it has come to pass.” Charlie Caisey, a fishmonger who once ran the fish shop opposite Harrods, employing thirty-five staff, showed me his daybook from 1967 when he was trading in the old Billingsgate market. “No-one would believe it now!” he exclaimed, wondering at the low prices evidenced by his own handwriting, “We had four people then who made living out of  just selling parsley and two who made a living out of just washing fishboxes.”

By now, the swelling tones of the organ installed by William Hill in 1848 were summoning us all to sit beneath Wren’s cupola and the Billingsgate men, in their overalls, modestly occupied the back row as the dignitaries of the City, in their dark suits and fur trimmed robes, processed to take their seats at the front. We all sang and prayed together as the church became a great lantern illuminated by shifting patterns of October sunshine, while the bones of the long-dead slumbered peacefully beneath our feet. The verses referring to “those who go down the sea in ships and occupy themselves upon the great waters,” and the lyrics of “For those in peril on the sea” reminded us of the plain reality upon which the trade is based, as we sat in the elegantly proportioned classical space and the smell of fish drifted among us upon the currents of air.

In spite of sombre regrets at the loss of stocks in the ocean and unease over the changes in the industry, all were unified in wonder at miracle of the harvest of our oceans and by their love of fish – manifest in the delight we shared to see such an extravagant variety displayed upon the slab in the church. And I enjoyed my own personal Harvest Festival of the Sea in Spitalfields for the next week, thanks to the large bag of fresh fish that Eddie Hill slipped into my hand as I left the church.

St Mary-at-Hill was rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren in 1677

Senior fishmongers from Billingsgate worked from dawn to prepare the display of fish in the church

Fishmonger Charlie Caisey’s market book from 1967

Charlie Caisey explains the varieties of fish to the curious


Frank David and Billy Hallet, Billingsgate Porters

Frank’s “bobbin” is a hundred and twenty years old and Billy’s is “brand new” from the nineteen thirties

Billy Hallet’s porter’s badge, now revoked by the City of London

Jim Shrubb, Beadle of Billingsgate with friends

The mace of Billingsgate, made in 1669

John White (President & Alderman), Michael Welbank (Master) and John Bowman (Secretary) of the Billingsgate Ward Club


Dennis Ranstead, Sidesman Emeritus and Graham Mundy, Church Warden of St Mary-at-Hill

Senior Porters and Fishmongers of Billingsgate

Frank sweeps up the parsley at the end of the service

The cobbled hill leading down from the church to the old Billingsgate Market

Frank David with the “bobbin” first worn by his grandfather Jim David at Billingsgate in the 1890s

Photographs copyright © Ashley Jordan Gordon

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Ruth Franklin At House Mill

October 5, 2019
by the gentle author

I first came across artist Ruth Franklin‘s work in Whitechapel in 2015, when she displayed her cardboard sculptures of sewing machines and hairdressing tools, reflecting her family’s history in these trades in the East End.

‘My work is about the importance of household artefacts and family professions in uncovering childhood memories and family history,’ says Ruth.

‘I have been reflecting on my grandparents, who fled Poland in the early 1900’s, to settle in the East End of London, where they set up a tailors workshop. Looking too at my father’s profession as a women’s hairdresser, I have been creating tailoring and hairdressing ‘objects’, both real and imaginary, through sewn paper constructions, and amalgamated workshop and hairdressers tools.’

Now Ruth is showing her new sculptures of hand tools in a joint exhibition with Sara Radstone & Kate Starkey at House Mill on Three Mills Island in Bromley-by-Bow from Wednesday 9th – Sunday 13th October. All are welcome at the private view on Thursday 10th, 6–8:30pm.

The spectacular eighteenth-century House Mill is Europe’s largest tidal mill and, if you have never visited, this is an ideal opportunity.

Power drill (2019)

Hand drill (2019)

Hammer (2019)

Tape Measure (2019)

Sewing machine (2015)

Iron (2015)

Hairdryer (2015)

Hairdressing tools (2015)

Equipment (2015)

The Salon (2015)

Tools for the salon  (2015)

Curling machine (2015)

Manya (2015)

Alfy in May, mother’s brogue (2015)

Artwork copyright © Ruth Franklin

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At House Mill

On Photographing Facades

October 4, 2019
by the gentle author

I write about the experience of photographing facades in today’s excerpt from THE CREEPING PLAGUE OF GHASTLY FACADISM

We only have to raise the last £1000 now to publish this book on 31st October. Please click here if you are able to help

You can also offer support by ordering a copy in advance for £15. Click here to preorder

Eighteenth century house in Norton Folgate facaded by British Land

I am grateful to you the readers who alerted me to examples of façadism across the capital this summer, sending me on ‘façade safaris’ to compile the collection of trophy specimens which comprise my book. This photographic quest took on its own life and I must confess I sometimes took guilty delight in discovering those bizarre examples which offered the most photogenic possibilities.

Evidently, when the discussion takes place between developers, architects, planners and conservationists a certain nuance enters the debate too. It is in the nature of human beings to seek compromise when negotiating. The questions arise – ‘Surely it is better to keep the façade at least?’ versus ‘What is the point in keeping just the façade, why not get rid of the old building entirely?’ Yet this is looking at the question from the wrong direction. The real question that should be asked is ‘What is the point in keeping just the façade, why not simply keep the whole building?’

I hope my pictures clarify this debate by demonstrating how wrong the practice of façadism is and how, in each case, the original building should never have been destroyed. I defy anyone to look at this gallery of notorious façades in my book and not be appalled.

These have been years of accelerating development in the capital, with old buildings vanishing and new buildings appearing as the city transforms before our eyes. This environment has allowed the creeping plague of ghastly façadism to spread almost invisibly across the capital, while the attention of the populace has been distracted by the exotic new buildings emerging on the skyline. By their nature, these subtle reconfigurations are less visible than the more obvious visual changes even if the implications are no less significant.

When the façade of a building is preserved, there is a sense that the reality of the change of use of the site is denied, even if the mutation of the building is obvious.

The prevalence of façadism has coincided with the growth of digital culture and our fascination with the virtual as an alternative to the temporal world. When someone walks down the street with a mobile device in hand, they are not paying any attention the buildings or the world around them. People delight to curate their social media with attractive images of themselves, their friends and their pastimes, without much regard to whether or not this is a true picture of their lives.

In all societies, it is the purpose of culture to mediate between appearance and reality. It suits many people not to look too closely at the world around us and exist within a bubble, ignoring inconsistencies and believing half truths. My book is written at a strange moment when the most successful politicians are also the biggest liars. When old buildings speak to us, they tell troubling stories of past aspirations, of deprivation and of struggle, of industry and of privilege. I can understand how it can be easier to live with the surface of history and to ignore the changes that are happening around us in the present day. Façadism suits our times very well, it is indeed – as British Land claim – our ‘kind of authenticity.’

6 Palace Court, Bayswater Rd, Hyde Park, W2

Dating from 1892, this elegant mansion facing Hyde Park was de- signed by Carlos Edward Arthur Ryder in the style of the Aesthetic Movement and built by Holloway Brothers. It comprised four storeys plus mansard roof with gable pitched dormers, and a chamfered bay and arched recessed third floor, with attractive terracotta window dressings throughout.

Buckingham Gate, Westminster, SW1

This terrace of Grade II listed town houses opposite Buckingham Palace was probably designed by Sir James Pennethorne, c.1850–55. They are faced in stucco with Italianate details, comprising four tall storeys plus basements and dormered mansards. Each house is three windows wide with large Doric columned porticos and recessed plate glass sashes.

American Embassy, 30 Grosvenor Sq, Mayfair, W1

The American Embassy London Chancery Building was designed by Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen and constructed in the late fifties, opening in 1960. A gilded aluminium eagle by Theodore Roszak, perched on the roof with a wingspan of thirty-five feet, distinguishes this London landmark.

The building has nine storeys, of which three are below ground. Grade II listed, it is considered to be a classic of modern architecture in the twentieth century.

The United States paid a peppercorn rent to the Duke of West- minster for use of the land and, in response to an American offer to buy the site outright, the Duke requested the return of his land confiscated after the American Revolutionary War, namely the city of Miami.

Only the façade of Eero Saarinen’s building stands now, pending redevelopment as a luxury hotel.

The Anti-Gallican, 155 Tooley St, Bermondsey, SE1

The Anti-Gallican Society was founded around 1745 in response to the perceived cultural invasion of French culture and goods. The Society flourished in the Seven Years’ War of 1756–1763 and the Napoleonic Wars of 1799–1805, persisting through the nineteenth century.

Dating from before 1822, this pub retained its xenophobic title until it closed in 2006, before succumbing to a nameless office development in 2011.

Empire Cinema, 56–61 New Broadway, Ealing, W5

The Empire Cinema was designed by John Stanley Beard in an Italian Renaissance style. It was one of a pair of near identical theatres which were built by Beard for Herbert Yapp in 1934. The other was in Kentish Town and both were taken over by Associated British Cinemas (ABC) within a year of opening. Each had façades dominated by eight tall columns with a double row of windows between the inner six, and seated 2,175 people on two levels. The Empire closed in 2008 and was demolished in 2009 when the doors were installed in its counterpart in Kentish Town to replace ones lost over the years.


“As if I were being poked repeatedly in the eye with a blunt stick, I cannot avoid becoming increasingly aware of a painfully cynical trend in London architecture which threatens to turn the city into the backlot of an abandoned movie studio.”

The Gentle Author presents a humorous analysis of facadism – the unfortunate practice of destroying an old building apart from the front wall and constructing a new building behind it – revealing why it is happening and what it means.

As this bizarre architectural fad has spread across the capital, The Gentle Author has photographed the most notorious examples, collecting an astonishing gallery of images guaranteed to inspire both laughter and horror in equal measure.

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The Creeping Plague of Ghastly Facadism

Philippa Stockley’s Restoration Stories

October 3, 2019
by Philippa Stockley

After reporting on London homes and their owners in the Evening Standard for twenty years, Philippa Stockley has written RESTORATION STORIES, a book about old, mainly Georgian, houses and the heroic souls who saved them

A back yard in Spitalfields

Raised in suburban Surrey, I dreamed of London. Mine was a romantic, book-provoked dream with a twinge of David Copperfield, but many of us rebel against what we knew as children. Though whether I would rebel if I had been raised in a castle or an old rectory was never tested, for ours was an ordinary family house with a big garden.

It was a perfect environment to nurture fantasies of grandeur, enriched by novels. Fantasies that usually included a Georgian house with a gravel sweep and tall windows, or something resembling a house in a film or television adaptation. Always old, often grand, but sometimes a decrepit house with sun-shafted dust and elegant mystery. It made no difference that much of the allure was created by set dressers. For me, beauty – however achieved – has always been the thing.

My actual experience of London was limited to thrilling rare excursions — for fireworks or to feed the ducks in St James’s Park on a snatched lunch hour with my father. Rareness and desirability so often go together.

Eventually I inveigled myself into London, staying in small or transitory places until I won a scholarship to study clothing history at the Courtauld Institute. During my second year, I shared a modest Georgian house in Eel Brook Common with other students. Of aged London stock with a somnolent flagged back yard, it was the first Georgian house I lived in. While some rooms were small and at dusk it could be gloomy, it was lovely and felt completely right.

While studying, I designed and made the costumes for a production of Edward Bond’s Restoration, hammering them out on a miniature sewing machine. My budget was tiny, but I had heard of street markets in the East End. Rumour had it that there were great shed-like warehouses selling heaps of tat in glorious abundance and old clothing emporia, and murky carparks converted into seas of wonder, to navigate sustained by bagels and hot coffee.

For a few ice-sodden Sundays I set out at dawn and bought dodgy mink and rabbit tippets, and boxes of military buttons later safety-pinned to waistcoats and breeches. But I also encountered a clutch of streets whose derelict beauty was like a double-handed slap. It was a very cold winter. My memory of that time sparks with ice. Those cobbled streets, Fournier, Wilkes, Princelet — names themselves romantic — appeared steel-grey, frozen, sprinkled with hoarfrost and fairy-dust in equal measure. Windows were broken or boarded, timber and lead porticos were decaying, yet they were the most magical houses and the most beautiful streets I had ever seen. Walking among them was like walking through the pages of a forgotten book or stepping into a faded postcard. In memory they smouldered, the colour of ashes, yet lay restless in my mind and broke into my heart. Even if I could not afford one, I never forgot them.

Later, others bought and restored them, several of which now smile gravely from the pages of my book. They feel like old friends. All different and with strong personalities. Now that they have simmered in my heart for years, I have tried to give a glimpse of them and of the people who saved them.

The accounts that their owners gave of restoring their homes were fascinating and often funny. Many were wry or poignant, all were passionate. All talked as if their houses were alive  – which they are – and as if they had distinct characters – which they do. I believe people who adopt these houses are the same sort who go to animal shelters in search of a small manageable dog and come away with two former greyhounds – one lame – a blasphemous parrot and an old, lunatic cat. The determination to save, to nurture and restore, mixed with a dollop of eccentricity, is always there. A warmth, a largeness of spirit, much generosity, a hint of genial lunacy. These are the characteristics of those who save old houses.

When I write about homes in the Evening Standard, I always write about the house and its owner as inseparable, which makes every story unique. But Georgian houses are special: not only because of their age but because of their grace.

When describing that grace, proportions are often mentioned: the ratio of glazing to brickwork, the pattern of mouldings, the measure of dado-panelling to wall height and the form of the panels. All a given. Yet it is the millions of small constituents, making up the complex that fascinate me more – all the handmade things that together, bit by bit, become a house. Grace slumbers ineffable in every one, from the humblest, the bricks and the lime mortar joining them, to the slow-grown, hand-sawn timber joists, the hand-cut slate tiles or hand-moulded clay pantiles. Then, glass blown white hot and miraculously flattened, bubbling, for window panes, plaster smoothly laid over hand-cut laths, and — oh! — hand- or bucket-mixed paint. Paint mixed to recipes passed from one painter to the other. Very simple for plain colours: the quotidian slubs and duns and off-whites, the quick cheap fake mahogany and pleasant ochres. But also, colours mixed by eye, practice and judgement, by the skill that comes with repetition. Paints mixed with knowledge, not by a machine – made with oil for longevity and satisfying sheen, to protect but also to add gentle tones made with natural earth pigments.

Some of the houses I have written about are nearly three hundred years old – and one is much older – yet their inhabitants find that life with electricity, gas and wi-fi sits well alongside Georgian beauty. What unites these people is that they put beauty first. Their houses share similar temperaments, yet each is completely different. And in every case its beauty speaks for itself.

I enjoy the fact that many were built on just a few courses of bricks. Their neighbours, their half-basements, and their solid but flexible flagged floors of thick stone laid directly on to sand or dirt hold them up effectively – supplemented occasionally with lengths of steel today. They prove that there are economical and renewable ways to construct homes compatible with modern life. If we built them now, they could stand into the twenty-fourth century.

The smallest were usually dubbed ‘fourth-rate.’ These were often narrow terrace houses of three or four floors including attic and half-basement. Today, it is a perfect size for a couple or young family. Yet some are just fourteen-foot wide — my own is a case in point. It reminds me of an upended caravan. It is not large yet it is ample and this graceful sufficiency is another Georgian trick, unlike later Victorian two-up-two-downs, which introduced meanness and a rather glum squatness. Houses like mine demonstrate an economical use of the plot with a light footprint both actually and metaphorically, while retaining the proportions of their grand cousins. These fourth-rate houses are the soot-blackened town mice, the London sparrows.

They also remind anyone who makes things that will not last or cannot be recycled, or who continues to argue in favour of demolition and shoddy, short-term building, that houses made of brick, lime, timber, and stone live, breathe and move, and if left alone will do so for a very long time. They shift and whisper, creak and murmur, particularly on London clay. Architects and planners should study them afresh.

In Elder St

In Mile End

In Elder St

In Fournier St

In Whitechapel

In Elder St

In Whitechapel

In Elder St

In Cable St

In Fournier St

In Fournier St

In Elephant & Castle

On the Isle of Sheppey

In Elephant & Castle

In Whitechapel

In Cable St

Photographs copyright © Charlie Hopkinson

RESTORATION STORIES by Philippa Stockley is published by Pimpernel Press today

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Eleanor Crow’s Butchers

October 2, 2019
by the gentle author

An exhibition of Eleanor Crow’s watercolours of classic London shopfronts featuring many paintings from her book SHOPFRONTS OF LONDON, In Praise Of Small Neighbourhood Shops is at Townhouse in Fournier St from Friday 4th October. You are all invited to the opening and book launch this Thursday 3rd October from 6:00pm.

Eleanor will giving an illustrated lecture at Wanstead Tap on Wednesday 9th October, showing her pictures and telling the stories of the shops. Click here for tickets

Click here to order a signed copy of Eleanor’s book for £14.99



W. A. Down & Son, The Slade, Plumstead


“Butchers have enjoyed an unlikely renaissance recently due to an increased interest in provenance and a suspicion of processed meat in the light of the horse meat scandal. Consequently, customers are now willing to spend more to buy better quality meat despite the presence of a nearby supermarket. A butcher can sell a range of cuts for all budgets, as well as offering advice on how to prepare and cook the meat. The rise of the celebrity chef has also contributed, encouraging people to seek out specialist and traditional butchers, and to buy meat in the old-fashioned way.” – Eleanor Crow



M & R Meats, St John St, Clerkenwell



Hussey’s, Wapping Lane



J Whenlock, Barking Rd, Plaistow



The Cookery, Stoke Newington High St



W. D. Chapman, High Rd, Woodford Green



The East London Sausage Company, Orford Rd, Walthamstow



The Butchers Shop, Bethnal Green Rd



J. Geller, High Rd, Leytonstone



Meat N16, Church St, Stoke Newington



A. G. Dennis, High St, Wanstead



At a time of momentous change in the high street, Eleanor’s witty and fascinating personal survey champions the enduring culture of Britain’s small neighbourhood shops.

As our high streets decline into generic monotony, we cherish the independent shops and family businesses that enrich our city with their characterful frontages and distinctive typography.

Eleanor’s collection includes more than hundred of her watercolours of the capital’s bakers, cafés, butchers, fishmongers, greengrocers, chemists, launderettes, hardware stores, eel & pie shops, bookshops and stationers. Her pictures are accompanied by the stories of the shops, their history and their shopkeepers – stretching from Chelsea in the west to Bethnal Green and Walthamstow in the east.