I’ve mentioned the work that’s been done on the beautiful Georgian villa of Marble Hill in Twickenham. Along the way, though, I’ve heard some very strange things from the ‘garden historians’ who advised English Heritage on restoration work.
One of the strangest was that the ice house at Marble Hill was particularly important as ice houses are rare.
In the days before refrigeration, the only way of providing ice was to store natural ice in an ice house. Ice houses were basically insulated pits. Ice was put into the pit (which had an outlet at the bottom for meltwater to drain through) and covered with straw to provide some insulation. A pit full of ice would last well into summer.
Ice houses were only used by the very rich, so to that extent they were rare. But many grand houses in the country had an ice house.
One good source of ice would be the Thames, back when it froze, so Marble Hill, set on the banks of the river may well have got its ice from there. Marble Hill’s ice house is conveniently near the house, but nestles in the shade of the trees. It’s a solid brick structure with a door for the ice to be taken in or out. Most of the brickwork, though, is hidden under a mound of soil that insulates the building.
English Heritage have planted ferns and small shrubs over the building. It may well have looked like this when it was built. It wasn’t just functional: it was a status symbol and Lady Henrietta Howard (who had it built) would have wanted it to look attractive. It’s possible that there was some sort of statue at the rear of the building to enhance its appearance from the back.
The ice house was lost for years when that area of the park was allowed to become overgrown. English Heritage have every reason to be proud of their efforts, but it’s hardly “rare”. Marble Hill House is built almost directly opposite the Jacobean Ham House on the other side of the Thames. Ham House has its own ice house built as part of the service area that supplied the kitchens. It’s near the dairy and buttery which sit between the house and the kitchen gardens.
The design is very different from that at Marble Hill, but it works in exactly the same way. At Ham House you can see into the empty pit to get an idea of the scale of the operation.
Further up the river, we come to Hampton Court Palace. The splendid ice house there is near an artificial lake but some distance from the palace itself. Maybe they galloped the ice to the kitchens on horseback.
I was beginning to think English Heritage was rather exaggerating the rarity of ice houses in the area when our explorations during lockdown took us to a small public park in Isleworth about two miles from Marble Hill. Here there was once a grand house called Silver Hall. It was demolished in the 1950s, but one part of the structure remains. Can you guess what it is yet?
Yes, it’s lost its earth covering that would have provided insulation, but it’s definitely an ice house.
I thought I must have exhausted the supply of local ice houses but then I came on a website that seems to provide a definitive list. It’s here: Ice Wells & Ice Houses (london-footprints.co.uk). If my pictures of local ice houses have caught your interest, you might well enjoy the link.
Here’s the latest instalment of my beloved’s covid diaries. We’ve both been pleasantly surprised at the positive comments we’ve had about them, but we won’t be able to keep up the weekly posts much longer. As life opened up, there was more going on and keeping the excerpts at a sensible length gets trickier. Also as more and more people are mentioned, privacy issues get more significant and keeping track of the alphabet soup that she has used to anonymise people gets silly.
Tammy is wondering about producing a proper memoir and we will likely still posts diary excerpts that cover some particularly important times (like the cancellation of Christmas which, for those of us not enjoying parties in Downing Street, was a particularly grim period).
For the next few weeks we’ll carry on. This week’s entry is actually very short. Enjoy.
Saturday 27 June 2020
It’s raining. I’ve just come back from the shops by bus wearing a face mask for the first time. Maybe “face mask” is overly grand. It was an old sock Tom cut up, as instructed by an online video. I don’t think masks work by filtering stuff. They work by encouraging people to sit quietly and shut up.
Last Sunday was Father’s Day. Mike and G came over to walk Morley in the park, followed by afternoon tea in our front (and only) garden. For the first time ever, we put out four chairs and a table, and scones and jam and cream. It was all very civilised.
Wednesday – midsummer – was our wedding anniversary. Mike and G sent a good quality champagne. So we had supper in the garden, drinking champagne from our best flutes and eating smoked salmon and cheese cake and cherries, feeing that life was actually OK. More than OK, pretty good. And, after the second glass, very good indeed. Watched a silly rom-com and danced to Vera Lynn’s Anniversary Walz.
On Thursday, for some unaccountable reason, felt muzzy and dehydrated. It must have been the heat.
On Friday, it was (a tiny bit) cooler. Tom and I cycled up the hill (low gear, kept going, just) to meet J at the Roehampton Gate of Richmond Park at 3.30pm. J arrived by Uber at the Sheen Gate at 3.50pm. No matter. Got back on our bikes and met her there. We walked through the park with ice creams, which I’ve been so looking forward to, as another step towards normality.
J has spent much, much too long alone in her flat with her kittens, with only the occasional trip to the vet to take her outside. She made excited coos when she saw a deer or a tree. “It’s amazing,” she kept saying, “It’s green”. J worried about leaving the kittens, even for a walk in the park. She had set up cameras in each room in her flat, and went online a couple of time to check the feeds. She showed me live coverage of a kitten climbing onto her bed and stretching out as though he owned it. J talked about her family, and the (uncertain) future. I even gave her a potted version of my theory of the crisis of capitalism. And on the way back, I found a new route – over Sheen Common – which brought me back home with no hills at all.
June 2020 and it’s been over three months since we’ve seen our friends who we would usually see every week. With restrictions on outdoor gatherings lifting, we could finally meet up. We were excited.
Sunday 22 June 2020
The event of the month – the summer solstice picnic in Regent’s Park on Saturday. The first return of music and dancing and socialising.
I studied the map and packed food and worried about clothes all morning. At 2.30 we set off on our bikes for the 1.5 hour ride into town. Yep – we are getting used to this. And cycling through Hyde Park on closed roads was great. London looked excited and buzzy. Lots of picnic-ers and birthday balloons and cyclists and rollerbladers. Even a game of roller hockey by the Albert Memorial as we passed.
The problem came in finding our group in Regents Park. Our instructions said “by the hub near the camels” – which we struggled with when faced with a huge open area, covered with groups of thousands of Londoners meeting up for the first time. I found T, ultra-excited (“I’ve missed this so much. It’s been lonely on my own”) and we wandered the zoo perimeter until we found and L and B putting up a gazebo. Soon we were a large group of at least 20, ignoring all Government guidelines about who can sit with whom, which would be far, far too complicated to understand, even if we cared.
Our host finds it impossible to greet people except with a kiss. Tom and I jumped away, but then compromised with a handshake (Tom) and hug (me). I put my satsumas and tea cakes on the shared food blanket, and looked awkwardly around, wondering how this socialising business was meant to work.
I spent a long time chatting to L. She and her husband have spent time filming funny videos and putting them online. She talked about her two-hour walks, finding routes from one park to another that she has never done before. Her daughter and mother live nearby, so she has kept in touch. But underneath was a huge seam of worry about the collapse of her business.
L is meticulous about her tax returns, so she has been getting 80% of her net earnings for last year (before things really took off). But that’s net earnings, and she is still repaying business loans. “We’ve coped, but we’ve had to think about things differently. We had to worry about whether we can afford to fill up the van with petrol, which we have never done before.”
By now, even Tom was talking to people. Someone produced a violin and someone else had a guitar and people were dancing barefoot on the grass. Tom and I discovered that if we put on our tango shoes, we could just about manage a pivot on the artificial strip provided for a cricket pitch. Then the bandoneon came out. “Last time we played music here we were fined”, our host said. But now the park police had given up. Tom and I ate the wraps we brought, and the shared stuff on the blanket, and soon it was 8pm and I needed to get home before it got dark.
I cycled back through an idyllic London, past crowds on Parson’s Green and Barnes Common, watching cars turn on their headlamps in the long, long summer’s evening. A minor incident on Putney Bridge when I crossed two lanes of traffic and got an angry honk. Otherwise, I was fine until I turned into our road and realised I was absolutely, totally knackered. Crawled up the stairs to bed.
An extra post today because I loved last night’s performance of The Car Man so much and its run at the Albert Hall ends of Sunday and I want people to go and see it.
This week I’ve been to see two narrative dance performance ie performances where the dance is used to tell a story, rather than just to be pretty. The first was The Crucible by Scottish Ballet and the second was The Car Man by Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures. I found it interesting to compare the two.
The Crucible used a generally traditional ballet approach: lots of point work, great technical skill from the company. There were more modern dance sequences as well but the overall approach was technically mainstream. However, they decided not to use traditional mime, but to carry the narrative by developing the relationships of the characters through the extension of naturalistic actions into ballet forms. For example, as the programme helpfully explains, “ If [the choreographer] wanted to work with gestures that truly showed intimacy, a caress of John’s hand on the side of Elizabeth’s thigh might then carry up to an arabesque.” Even if you believe that 55% of communication is non-verbal (almost certainly a gross over-estimate) that still leaves the audience losing 45% of the plot. You have to watch with close attention, interpreting clues as if you are solving a non-verbal Times crossword. The synopsis provided in the programme is essential if you are to have any idea what is going on.
We saw The Crucible at Sadler’s Wells, a theatre that has no really bad seats, but we were towards the back of the stalls. The stage is under-lit (the gloom is deliberate and certainly adds to the sense of menace) and simply seeing the details of expression (essential given that the big gestures of mime are deliberately not used) was a strain. (It literally gave me a headache.)
The costumes are excellent but the minimalist scenery adds little to help carry a complex narrative. When one character, according to the synopsis, “flees Salem” she simply travels from one side of the stage to the other before vanishing into the wings, the only clue that she is leaving the village being the canvas bag she carries which presumably contains all her belongings.
That just leaves the music to draw the audience in and carry them along. Peter Salem’s score (nominative determinism gone mad here), the programme notes tell us, “draws on 17th century psalms, and evocative sounds such as the courtroom gavel or a church bell but also embraces the electro beat of rave music which heightens the repressed sexuality of the teenage girls.” It is fair to say that it is not a high-energy audience pleaser.
The Crucible may not have been a particularly fun night out but critics loved it, in part, I suspect, because it takes on the challenge of telling a complex story through dance and surely that must make considerable demands of its audience.
And so to Exhibit Two: The Car Man.
Matthew Bourne is committed to telling stories through dance. Many of his works pay homage to cinema (most notably The Red Shoes, which is a re-telling of the famous film). His work seeks to tell stories, sometimes complex stories, in an accessible way. So how does he do it?
In the Albert Hall production we saw last night, the huge performance area is inhabited by the boys and girls of Harmony (we know it’s called Harmony because there’s a huge town sign telling us it is) as they gather around the diner. The set is beautiful and it tells us a lot before the dance even starts. We’re in America, probably the mid-West, and it’s the late fifties or early sixties. The style of the diner and the clothes (costumes are brilliant) tells us that. (Later we learn it’s 1957, but you’d have to pay attention to pick that up.)
The music starts. It’s a rearrangement of Bizet’s Carmen and the powerful rhythm pulls you immediately into the action as the young people start with a performance that gives more than a nod to West Side Story. It’s bright and cheerful, well-lit and upbeat. Even in the vastness of the Albert Hall it’s easy to watch. (It goes without saying that, this being New Adventures, the quality of the dance is stunning.)
The Car Man is not a cheery crowd pleaser. The story, of lust, infidelity, rape and murder ends in tragedy. Harmony, once a peaceful town of happy young people has descended into a hellish place where bare-knuckle boxing and drag racing have replaced the fiestas that used to characterise it. Tough though the story is (and when it was first produced bits were truly shocking) it’s never difficult to watch. Emotionally draining, yes, but in a good way.
Narrative dance can be accessible and entertaining, though Matthew Bourne is one of the very few choreographers still around who can consistently make it work on the scale that he does. But if you can’t make this form work, it’s maybe better to stick with the pretty stuff. Done well, narrative dance is thrilling; done badly, it might impress some critics, but it does audiences no favours and that, ultimately, drives people away from the theatre, which is, I think we can agree, A Bad Thing.
If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll have seen that Tammy and I spent a couple of days in Shrewsbury last week. It’s somewhere that we have been meaning to visit for years and we have finally got round to it.
Like so many people, I was attracted to the place by reading about the medieval town in Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael stories. She describes the abbey at the foot of the town and the castle at the top so well that I wanted to see them for myself. There are still bits of the abbey and the castle standing but, to be honest, not much, though both are worth a visit. We started with the castle. Apart from a tiny bit of wall at the entrance, all that is left of the medieval castle is the Great Hall built by Henry III in the 13th century.
It’s been chopped and changed a fair bit since, with an extra floor added and internal partitions put in and taken away. It was, for a while, a private residence but the 20th century saw it purchased by the Shropshire Horticultural Society who tried to restore the Great Hall to its original appearance. This included putting in not one but two minstrels’ galleries, because everybody knows that 13th century Great Halls had minstrels’ galleries. (They didn’t.) Overall, though, the building is in remarkably good shape.
As you can just about see in the photo the ground floor (where all the light is) is now a museum celebrating the history of the Shropshire regiments. It’s an unfashionably unashamed celebration of the Army with more red coats than I have seen in a while, plus some unusual exhibits like a lock of Napoleon’s hair. (A Shropshire regiment guarded him at St Helena.)
Otherwise little is left of the castle. Even the Norman motte — the artificial high point that is usually the last thing to be lost in ancient fortifications — is but a shadow of its former glory as much of it slipped into the river below back in 1271, taking with it the wooden tower on its summit. The romantic tower that you see today is a 19th century folly.
At the other end of town the abbey, too, is a shadow of the building it once was. Henry VIII’s Reformation saw the destruction of almost all the Abbey buildings and even the great abbey church itself, once 302 feet (over 90 metres) long was truncated to serve as a parish church. What remains, though is splendid. The two lower arches in this photo are original Norman. (The top storey was added later.)
The only other parts of the Abbey to survive were a pulpit which had been part of the refectory so that monks could have the gospels read to them as they ate (and which was saved as it made an attractive garden ornament for the man who bought the land to build on) and a hall for sheltering travellers. The hall features a lot in the Cadfael stories as travellers often drive the plots, so I had to photograph it, however unimpressive it looks.
The Abbey and the castle may be shadows of their former selves, but the town in between is astonishing. Built in the loop of the river there has been no room for urban sprawl or even any major redevelopment and much of the original mediaeval street system and a remarkable number of the buildings still survive. What distinguishes Shrewsbury from many other historic towns is that the ancient buildings have been pressed into use for the 21st century. So the beautiful old market hall (pictured below) contains a cinema upstairs in the late 16th century building.
The public library is housed in Shrewsbury School, which was founded in 1550. (That’s it at the top of the page.) As a school it, of course, had its own library and the idea that people are still using the building for at least part of its original purpose seems to me to demonstrate a much better understanding of “heritage” then all those buildings that we have carefully sealed away so they can be enjoyed as museums. Some of the library’s rooms are spectacular.
In Shrewsbury, most of the buildings aren’t museums unless, of course, they are the local Museum and Art Gallery, which incorporates 13th-century Vaughan’s Mansion, one of only a handful of early medieval defensive hall houses remaining in the UK and a 19th century music hall.
Besides the Norman, medieval and 17th century buildings, the town has a number of remarkable 19th century buildings. This hospital, now developed as residential apartments, stood out for me.
There was a lot to see in just two days and we took time to visit Wroxeter Roman city as well. Once the fourth largest city in Britain, it’s now basically a single wall (known as ‘The Old Works’) in a field but the archaeologists have worked their magic and the place was definitely impressive. As the Romans would have said, though, Sic transit gloria mundi.
So there we are: several decades after I first said, “We ought to visit Shrewsbury,” we did and it was very, very good. I can recommend it. We stayed in The Old Post Office, itself an amazing old building in the centre of the town. If you have a couple of days to spare, you could do a lot worse.
My beloved’s journal continues, though how long we’ll keep up these weekly posts is uncertain. It’s a difficult time to catch the mood of. On the one hand, we are enjoying long country walks with our son and his new bubble but, on the other, friends trapped abroad and older relatives cut off from everything that defines their normal lives are all struggling.And she continues (rightly as it turns out) to worry about what winter will bring.
Sunday 14 June 2020
Just as I was finishing yesterday’s entry, I got a call from Mike. His plans had changed. Why didn’t we come over for a long walk/picnic/BBQ? So I rushed home, made cream cheese bagels and dragged Tom through the shower. We were there by 1pm, to meet Mike, Morley, G and S, leaving the house, clutching an OS map.
Mike had mentioned a footpath through meadows a few minutes walk from his door, but I hadn’t believed him. This is London – within the M25. Surely, if there was open space, people would know about it? The secret was a horrible entrance – right by the A40 roundabout – which looked like a track to a fly tip. But 100 yards later, around the corner, the meadows of Middlesex opened up. Long grass, buttercups, clover, the lot, with a very excited Morley, leaping up like a little puppy. Eventually we were balancing over a lock on the Fray, admiring long boats. S was keen to make elderflower champagne, so we picked elderflowers along the towpath, and decided which boat we would buy in a possible alternative universe.
G talked about her family. Her sister is struggling with three children at home, including a teenager chaffing at the restraints. Her stepfather is still shielding and getting get fed up. How much more of the time left to him can be spent in not singing in the choir or seeing friends? S is now installed for the duration with M & G — be careful of house guests these days because once they are in they can never leave. She talked about the good old days working in adventure training for kids (obviously not happening now) and her new job in the Post Office sorting office.
At 3.30 Mike relented to Tom’s increasingly pointed remarks about lunch, and we sat on the green in Uxbridge eating his pasta salad and my bagels. And back by more streams and reed beds and ponds, looking increasingly like Wind in the Willows, with water lilies and flag irises and a terrapin sunning itself on a rock. When we returned after 5 hours and 10 miles, I didn’t want to admit how much my legs didn’t work.
We sat in the garden eating the (melted, gooey) chocolate biscuits I had brought, while Mike made pizzas to cook in his new expensive BBQ contraption. In the end we had 3 pizzas (one burnt, one underdone and one perfect) huddled under a tarpaulin Mike had fixed to the drainpipe and windowsill, while rain poured down and lightening appeared in the sky. I stayed warm under a blanket as we got closer and closer, and life felt better and better. Truly a night to remember.
Friday 19 June 2020
After Saturday’s excitement, it’s been a quiet week. I’ve been trying to help with V with her employment problems. V has been unable to return from India, though her manager keeps looking at Sky Scanners, to find possible fights to bring her home, routed via Delhi, Dubai, Istanbul etc. Most of these are aspirations, or phantoms. Reports in the Indian press say that no commercial flights have taken off from India. There are only been repatriation flights, organised by Governments and, because V is not a UK citizen, she has been at the very bottom of the priority list.
But it is difficult to prove that they are all phantoms. Eventually V snapped that she wasn’t going to consider a flight through Delhi, with multiple stopovers, taking up to 44 hours and liable to dump her in random airports. The risk was too great.
The manager pointed to V’s official risk assessment, which put her in the “low risk” category. The NHS (her employer) required her to consider alternative routes. And if she was not considering these (probably non-existent) alternatives, her pay would be stopped. V has now booked a place on an Air India repatriation flight and is due back next week. She faces a three-person panel to consider recouping her pay for April and May, even though she has been working from India.
Low risk? V is older than she looks. If the latest research is true, as someone with a South Asian background she has an equivalent Covid risk profile as a white woman in her eighties. How can an NHS trust assess her as low risk? I’ve been practising my employment lawyer skills and trying to write “reasonable and not really legalistic” emails on her behalf.
I stopped work at 4pm on Wednesday to wander into Richmond to re-engage with the shopping experience. There were a lot of sales, at huge discounts, for products that no-one wants any more. No worry about queues outside – the places were empty. I wandered into H&M, which had a few people, and bought a black T shirt for £5. Was this the T shirt that would make me look slim and beautiful? When I got home and tried it on, I realised it wasn’t, but it hardly seems worth the hassle of taking it back. I’ve now got the urge to splurge out of my system.
I’m now working on the basis that coronavirus goes away in the summer when everyone is outside. I shall spend the next three months having as much fun as possible. The second wave seems scheduled for October. In November, we will all be back indoors, cowering, as the economy collapses.