Walk the Fleet

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Everyone’s heard of the Thames, but surprisingly few people seem to have heard of its many tributaries – the most famous being the Fleet River. This is perhaps understandable, given that the Fleet (and many other minor rivers in London) are hidden away – but the signs are still there, if you know where to look. I’ve wanted to walk the Fleet for a while, and decided to go for it on Saturday: the weather was slightly cooler at the beginning of the Bank Holiday weekend.

Vale of Health Pond

Vale of Health Pond

I began my journey on Hampstead Heath, where the Fleet (the name is derived from the Anglo-Saxon flēot, ‘tidal inlet’) still flows overground, at the Vale of Health pond: this pond feeds the Hampstead Brook, the western arm of the River Fleet. You can follow the course of the brook through the woods of Hampstead Heath, though it was almost dried up on the hot day I visited. Further on, the stream flows into the public bathing ponds at the bottom of the Heath.

Hampstead Heath

The Fleet flowing through Hampstead Heath

(I should mention here that another branch of the river flows down from Highgate, but I chose the Hampstead branch, purely because it was easier for me to get to. One day I might go and check out the Highgate branch too).

Hampstead Ponds

Hampstead Ponds

The Fleet was a major river in Roman times, and its status was largely maintained into the Anglo-Saxon era, with wells, supposedly with healing qualities, built at Clerkenwell and Bridewell. As London increased in size, the river became notorious for filth and sewage, surrounded by prisons and slums. From 1680 the Fleet became the New Canal, lined with wharves frequently used by the coal trade from the North East of England; hence the street names Newcastle Close and Old Seacoal Lane. From the mid-eighteenth century onwards, parts of the river were gradually covered over, enclosed in brick-lined sewers, until the 1870s when the final section, up at Hampstead, was covered.

Prince Albert

Grating outside the Prince Albert pub

The two branches converge in Kentish Town, before heading down towards the centre of London. I walked away from the calming greenery of the Heath into the built-up and urban Camden, stopping at the Prince Albert pub, where the Fleet flows under an iron grating. It can be heard easily (but not so easily seen, in the sunlight). Sadly, my plan to stop for a drink in the pub was thwarted as it was closed (this also happened with the next pub on my route. Clearly the universe is conspiring against me).

Heading down towards King’s Cross, I passed St Pancras Old Church (another blog post to follow). I was fascinated to see a picture showing the Fleet rushing by the Church in the days before it was covered up. King’s Cross was originally named Battle Bridge, referring to an ancient bridge over the Fleet where Boudica’s army is said to have fought an important battle against the Romans. I hurried past the busy King’s Cross station and onto Gray’s Inn Road, before avoiding the traffic and heading into a quieter, more residential area. I passed a housing estate called Fleet Court – clearly I was going in the right direction. My route also took me past the Mount Pleasant Mail Centre and the new Postal Museum.

The Coach

Grating outside The Coach pub

My next encounter with the Fleet was in Farringdon, outside the Coach pub, where another grating covers the rushing Fleet, though I wasn’t able to hear anything this time. The Fleet’s presence here seems to be more well-known: I overheard someone pointing it out as I loitered. The original Hockley tavern, which stood on the site, was in the midst of an area known for gambling and bear-baiting and apparently, in 1709, a bear killed the landlord.

I walked down Saffron Hill, a small, sloping street, but couldn’t find any signs of the Fleet here although I’d heard that they exist. Never mind – I soon arrived at Holborn Viaduct, a bridge over a valley which was carved out by the widening Fleet over several years. This stretch of the river was once full of ships, loading and unloading their produce (including the stones for Old St Paul’s Cathedral). This part of the river was also known as the ‘Holbourne’.

Holborn Viaduct

Holborn Viaduct

Towards the end of my walk, I passed Ludgate Circus, which crosses Fleet Street, named for the river. It was originally the site of the Fleet Bridge river crossing. The King Lud pub occupied the building now used by Leon between 1870 and 2005, and it is rumoured that the Fleet could be seen flowing under a glass floor panel.

Ludgate Circus

Ludgate Circus

Finally, my walk came to an end as I reached Blackfriars Bridge. What remains of the Fleet flows out of Victorian sewers into the Thames underneath the bridge, although sadly I couldn’t view the exit as the area is currently undergoing building works. Still, I was very pleased to have finally got the chance to follow the Fleet.

Blackfriars Bridge

The Fleet flows into the Thames beneath Blackfriars Bridge

Where To See and Hear the Hidden River Fleet from Londonist and Going underground: Mile after mile of ornate brickwork and labyrinthine tunnels which reveal the beauty of London’s hidden River Fleet from Mail Online (I know, I know, but it was genuinely interesting) helped me to work out my route, spot the Fleet along the way, and learn about its history. There is also a fascinating article on Wikipedia.

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Old Royal Naval College

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Gateway to the ORNC

Gateway to the ORNC

The Old Royal Naval College dominates the centre of Maritime Greenwich, being sited not far from Cutty Sark DLR station and very close to the DLR itself. Some tourists initially mistake it for the National Maritime Museum. The site has a rich history. Greenwich Palace, the birthplace of Mary I and Elizabeth I, originally occupied the site; it was known as the Palace of Placentia. Having fallen into disrepair during the English Civil War, it was demolished in 1694. Designed by Christopher Wren, the buildings were conceived as Greenwich Hospital (established by Mary II), and built between 1696 and 1712. The hospital closed in 1869, and between 1873 and 1998 it was the Royal Naval College, Greenwich.

Old Royal Naval College

Old Royal Naval College

Since 2002 much of the site has been open to the public. I’ve wandered around the grounds frequently, visited a couple of the buildings, and attended concerts, but I decided to take advantage of a free guided tour on the same day as I visited the Discover Greenwich Visitor Centre, which has lots of information about the site.

Monument to Bellot

Monument to Bellot

Our guide took us along the waterfront, pointing out the memorial to Captain Bellot, a Frenchman who perished searching for Franklin in the Arctic (there is a memorial to the Franklin expedition in the Chapel). As the Thames was at low tide, she also pointed out the remains of a pier established by Margaret of Anjou, who originally had the palace built.

Remains of the 15th-century pier

Remains of the 15th-century pier

Of course, you can wander around the grounds yourself, but on a tour you are shown things you probably wouldn’t have noticed, like the spot on which archaeological remains of Greenwich Palace were discovered. Apparently it is forbidden to put too much weight onto the grass, in case the site beneath is damaged. The iron gates by the river are where Nelson’s body was brought on shore for lying in state before he was taken to St Paul’s Cathedral for burial.

Gateway to the Thames

Gateway to the Thames

The tour guide also pointed out just how impressive Christopher Wren’s calculations were: commanded by Queen Mary to ensure the Queen’s House kept it’s view of the river, he ensured the buildings on either side were placed to keep the Queen’s House precisely in the middle.

The Queen's House viewed from the ORNC

The Queen’s House viewed from the ORNC

A statue of George II is also a notable landmark. The statue is made of one single piece of marble and the king is depicted in the guise of a Roman Emperor.

Statue of George II

Statue of George II

Today, the University of Greenwich leases Queen Mary, King William and Queen Anne Courts and Trinity Laban School of Music and Dance occupies King Charles Court. The latter also performs regularly in the beautiful Chapel. We also popped into the Painted Hall, painted between 1707-1726 by Sir James Thornhill. The Hall is currently undergoing restoration, and I was lucky enough to take part in a Painted Hall Ceiling Tour, which takes you up to the ceiling so that you can view the artwork close up.

The Old Royal Naval College is well worth a visit, and there are so many things to do, from learning about history in the Visitor Centre, taking a guided tour, or listening to a concert in the Chapel.

FACTS

Address: King William Walk, Greenwich, London, SE10 9NN

Website: ornc.org

Opening Hours: 10am-5pm

Prices: Free (charges for some concerts and for Painted Hall Ceiling Tours)

Discover Greenwich Visitor Centre

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Greenwich Visitor Centre

Not to be confused with the Greenwich Heritage Centre, which is located in Royal Arsenal, the Discover Greenwich Visitor Centre is located near the Cutty Sark, in the grounds of the Old Royal Naval College. Housed in the Pepys Building, originally an engineering laboratory for the ORNC, it opened in 2010.

The free Centre offers an introduction to the history and attractions within the Greenwich World Heritage Site. It has information on the history of the Palace of Placentia, models of Christopher Wren’s original designs for Greenwich Hospital, the carved heads originally intended to decorate the exterior of the Painted Hall, and a model of a lion originally intended for external decoration, too. I particularly enjoyed the section about Greenwich Palace, the birthplace of Henry VIII, and the archaeological work that has discovered more about the palace and its layout and decoration.

Lion

The Centre has other displays about maritime Greenwich and about the history of the Royal Naval College, which occupied Greenwich Hospital and the surrounding area between 1873 and 1998. It also has a Tourist Information desk and a gift shop.

Greenwich Visitor Centre

This free visitor centre is well worth checking out as introduction to Greenwich.

FACTS

Address: 2 Cutty Sark Gardens, Old Royal Naval College, London, SE10 9LW

Website: ornc.org/visitor-centre

Opening Hours: 10am-5pm

Prices: Free

Jewellery brand of the month: Working Clasp

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For this month’s jewellery brand I’ve chosen the UK-based:

WORKING CLASP

Working Clasp jewellery and accessories are designed and produced in Birmingham by Rebecca Cowley.

It’s a shame St Patrick’s Day has passed, because I love this Father Ted-inspired Father Jack shamrock pin.

shamrock pin

These cameo earrings are beautiful and subtle.

cameo studs

I love this vibrant poppy brooch.

poppy brooch

This star necklace is very Eighties.

star necklace

While this vintage floral necklace is delicate and subtle.

vintage floral necklace

Check out Working Clasp via the following links:

Website: workingclasp.com

Etsy: etsy.com/uk/shop/workingclasp

Instagram: instagram.com/workingclasp

Facebook: facebook.com/pages/Working-Clasp-Jewellery

Twitter: twitter.com/workingclasp

Charles I: King and Collector – Royal Academy of Arts and Charles II: Art and Power – Queen’s Gallery

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The Royal Academy and the Queen’s Gallery are both playing host to seventeenth-century royalty-related exhibitions this year. I don’t know if they planned it this way or not, but they certainly made the most of it, offering a joint weekend ticket including tea and cake. I’ll admit the cake swung it for me.

Royal Academy of Art

The Royal Academy exhibition, Charles I: King and Collector, was actually due to end on the day I visited, so it was very busy. This didn’t stop me from getting a good look at the works on display, however. Works are categorised by theme, with the Italian Renaissance, the Northern Renaissance and Van Dyck and Reubens in England grouped in separate rooms, or else their former location: pictures that were hung in the Queen’s House can be found in one room, and those from the Whitehall Cabinet in another. The Mortlake Tapestries adorn one room, while images of Charles I in the hunting field hang in the Central Hall.

The exhibition consists of works that were accumulated by Charles I before and after he became king. He loved art and was a keen collector, but after his execution his collection was broken up and sold off (some of the catalogues can be seen here). This exhibition reunites these works after several centuries. Some didn’t have far to come, having got back into the Royal family’s hands after the Restoration, or else having been sold to wealthy collectors in the UK. Others, however, ended up in Europe or the US, and have been loaned for the purposes of this exhibition.

I must admit that in themselves, I didn’t fall in love with many of the works on display here (though I did enjoy seeing the full-length portrait of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, an image I recognised from A level History). However, I was impressed by the collection as a whole, and the way in which it reflects Charles’ impact on the art world.

Queen's Gallery

After my restoring cup of tea and piece of cake I walked through Green Park to the Queen’s Gallery, where Charles II: Art and Power is currently being hosted until 15 May. This exhibition follows on from and complements the Charles I exhibition, focusing on Charles II and how he made use of art to convey his power. It began with a small display of items relating to the Civil War, the execution of Charles I, and the Protectorate, and went on to focus on the art that he collected and that was produced during his reign. Some of this was originally part of his father’s collection and had been brought back; others were new acquisitions.

In terms of the historical interest, I think I preferred this exhibition, partly as it was much quieter and much easier to see the artworks. There were surprises too: for instance, I had no idea that the famous painting of Erasmus was once part of a pair, and the two paintings were attached together.

The most dramatic work in this exhibition is the huge portrait of Charles II (the one that adorns all the publicity material) that dominates the last room. In its display of power and authority it is reminiscent of the painting of Charles I on horseback displayed at the Royal Academy; knowing what happened to the first Charles, I wonder if the second Charles drew this comparison and wondered; or if he just didn’t care.

Regardless, these are a fascinating pair of exhibitions, well put together and worthwhile for their historical context as much as their artistic context.