Caesar, your bath’s ready

They say don’t meet your heroes as you’ll be disappointed and I reckon this applies to some ancient monuments too. I’ve always had a love of all things roman, an early memory is of going to the Lunt Roman Fort in Coventry as a child and being mesmerised watching roman soldiers marching on the parade ground, brandishing swords and looking menacing. Little did I know that they weren’t part of the roman army just Coventry council workers on overtime dressed up for the day.

For years I’ve been fascinated by the Roman Bath in Strand Lane. Roman? It’s probably not. It’s more than likely a cistern for a garden water feature of the original Somerset House dating from the 1600’s. In the 1770’s the cistern was reclaimed and advertised as a “cold bath” and it’s presumed in the 1830’s the owner thought if they gave it a roman angle more punters would use it and it’s stuck ever since. More on the bath’s history here and here.

On the numerous occasions I’ve visited I’ve only looked through the (if not dirty then steamed up) window seeing next to nothing but my own reflection and have always wanted to go inside. Thursday lunchtime I did just that after an email to dcreese@westminster.gov.uk It’s free to visit but they require at least one week’s notice.

Before last weekend it was easy to view the bath even though it’s off the beaten track. All you had to do was walk up Strand Lane to the building that has a National Trust sign outside (above) and if the gate was unlocked you could peer in through the window. It seems that all’s changed since the London Bridge terrorist attack as the passageway through Surrey Steps is locked and there’s now a security guard at the bottom of Strand Lane only letting Kings College employees in. I had trouble getting through even after showing him a email confirming the visit from Westminster Council so be warned.

I was met at the site by a Westminster council gardener from nearby Embankment Gardens who let me in and stood outside for the duration of my visit. If you intend to go do read up a bit about the place first as you won’t be getting tour of the guided variety.

The first thing I noticed as I entered the dark entrance hall was the acrid smell of damp and then the feeling of intense cold. The council worker didn’t mention it but there were a couple of switches inside you can flick on for the lights in the hall and one outside which seems to control the main light over the actual bath itself. In the hall there was a table with a couple of maps of Strand Lane and above that a few photocopied sheets about the history of the place. To the right was a bricked up tiled doorway to what once was a second bath (The Essex bath) which is now covered over.
Straight ahead through the hall was a small dark room with a couple of mis-matched chairs, a roman bath sign and a modern day fusebox (above). It made me think of the room in a prison in an old black and white film where they’d keep an electric chair in. Spooky!

To the left was the room with the plunge bath in (main picture at the top) which had a metal bar that stopped you going in any further to explore the room. To the side of the bath was a 60’s style serving hatch (above) that made me smile.

The biggest disappointment was the lack of anything remotely roman. It is said in the 1770’s the room was festooned with artefacts and in the picture above it suggests decoration in a roman style but there’s sadly nothing of the sort these days. Amongst the broken paving stones lying on the bare flooring I did see what I thought was a discarded statue of a roman deity (below) but on second glance it was probably a piece of twisted up copper pipe. 
After about 5 minutes I had had enough, there wasn’t much else to see and the damp and the cold were getting to my bones. My lust for the roman bath has now been satisfied and I doubt if I’ll be popping down there again. If only the council worker who came to meet me was dressed in a toga and sandals and there were fake antiquities dotted about the bath house; things would have been oh so different. P

But Geoffrey Fletcher did

A bargain was bagged last week for the princely sum of £2.94 (including p+p off Amazon), it was a book by Geoffrey Fletcher which inspired the film “The London Nobody Knows” as featured in the last post. It’s a nice old book with illustrations by Fletcher (who was a graphic artist as well as a writer) and a preface written in 1989 where he mentions the changes in London since the original publication of 1962.

The book features lots of places that have long disappeared, language from a time gone by (some that now wouldn’t be politically correct) and some just plain daft: “Weird youths…stare listlessly into radio and jazz shops, youths with white-eyeleted shoes accompanied by their fun-molls. Each couple has horribly pointed shoes that make me think of elves; they twitch epileptically to the sound of jazz”. God knows what he’d say if he was still about today about London’s youth (and also the 50-odd year old punks wandering around New Cross with “Discharge” painted on the back of their “levver” jackets) but we love this book and it comes highly recommended!

If they were ever going to do a contemporary rewrite of the book and were looking for someone to do the illustrations we here at Liylh reckon they should be done by the artist Marc Gooderham (his “Elder Street, Spitalfields” above and Hawksmoor’s “Christchurch” below) as he uses decaying London as a major inspiration (examples of his London paintings here). As it says on his website about his work “Capturing the singular beauty to be found in those neglected buildings that have fallen into disrepair as the living city continues to evolve around them”. Fletcher would have liked that! By coincidence “The London Nobody Knows” was and is used by Marc as his bible and in his own words: “for drawing and sketching, looking for lost architectural delights… the book was a great discovery”. Have a look at more of Marc’s work here.

And finally while researching this post I found two episodes of a Radio 4 programme from 2011 where Dan Cruickshank revisits Geoffrey Fletcher’s old haunts in the first episode here and in the second he visits his own quirky favourites here. One of them is the abandoned St Mary’s Underground Station in Whitechapel which is featured on this short BBC film here. The London nobody knows indeed! P

The brotherhood of the leaky boot and other stories

This week a friend told me about a very melancholic piece of music by Gavin Bryars called “Jesus’ blood never failed me yet” which samples a homeless man singing taken from an outtake of a 1970’s film about men who lived rough around Waterloo Station. It’s a well crafted number but be warned it’s very poignant and not one to have on if you’re feeling a bit down or you’ll be in tears within seconds.

The song put me in mind of a scene from a film featuring James Mason touring the capital which has always stuck in my mind. He was interviewing some men living in a Salvation Army hostel and said to them (on the subject of prejudice against homeless people when trying to get employment) “you are simply, down on your luck”.

The film is the wonderful “The London Nobody Knows” from 1967 produced by Norman Cohen originally from a book of the same name by Geoffrey Fletcher circa 1962 (available from Amazon on paperback very cheaply here). It is a snapshot of London in times well gone by and starts with the heavy reverberated voice of music hall legend Marie Lloyd and James Mason’s footsteps in the then dilapidated Bedford Theatre, Camden Town now sadly gone.

Music-related locations like The Camden Catacombs (underneath Rehearsal Rehearsals where The Clash and Subway Sect would practice) are featured as well as The Roundhouse. There’s even public loo’s (“All men are equal in the eyes of a lavatory attendant” Mason quips) featuring one in Holborn which supposed once had goldfish in the cistern and the classic double doorway type urinal in Star Yard which we featured here.

It’s a lovely slice of life from back then and features street entertainers you don’t see anymore (the Yosser Hughes/Screaming Lord Sutch-like song and dance duo above and Johnny Eagle the strongman come escapologist below who had a regular pitch near the Tower of London so I’ve been told) alongside an array of sheepskin coat-clad characters. So grab yourself half a stout, have a butchers at this film and when it’s over you can rightly say “Gor blimey guv’nor they don’t make films that like anymore”. P

Where sweet Caroline met Happy Jack

It’s not every day you get to ask a couple of machine gun-toting policemen for directions but last Monday lunchtime I did. I was lost outside the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Green Park and trying to find my way to an address that once housed an organisation that changed the face of UK radio forever.

In the days of old there were no pop music radio stations in the UK until Radio Caroline changed all that in 1964 (more on the station here). I’ve long been fascinated by the offshore pirates of the 60’s and have just finished Ray Clark’s “Radio Caroline: the true story of the boat that rocked” so the other afternoon I decided to take a trip to 6 Chesterfield Gardens W1 (once known as “Caroline House”) where the station had their London HQ from 1964 to 1967.

It’s funny what impressions an address gives as I was expecting the location to be a nice square surrounding a leafy park but alas it wasn’t; it was a nondescript gloomy looking dead-end filled with expensive cars and builders busily filling skips. Looking at the building today it looks a lot cleaner compared to the images of it back in the sixties and is now a bright and airy office complex which now houses a collection of finance related firms.

Back then the building contained the Caroline organisation (that had offices over all four floors and a recording studio down in the basement) and other music related companies they rented floor space out to. These included the actor Terrence Stamp, Robert Stigwood (who managed The Bee Gees, Lord Sutch and Cream) and Track records (ran by Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp who also managed The Who) and it was here Roger and the boys filmed their Happy Jack video. In the promo film directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg in 1966 you can see the grand staircase and one of the high-ceilinged rooms with classy chandeliers.

If you want to see more of what the place was like in its heyday there’s a wonderful short film from 1965 about Radio Caroline here and the first two minutes features the interior and exterior of Caroline House. As the narrator in the film says says “(It’s) a big building for a big organisation”. It sure was! P

I’ve got those K2 phone box blues

k2-close-up

I noticed this customised Giles Gilbert Scott designed K2 telephone box art gallery at the end of Bedford Row the other day after getting some cheap fruit  at Leather Lane Market to stick into our new juicer.

inside-the-box

It took me a few minutes to get to grips with the ghostly burnt plastic sheet hanging from where the light bulb should be. What does it all mean? Answers on a postcard, please. P

Thank Trollope for the post box

postbox_trollope

Being a postman in a previous life I do love a pillar box, and here’s one with a special commemorative plaque I spotted on Fleet Street the other day.

The plaque is is commemorating the bicentenary of Anthony Trollope’s birth in 1815.
More famous as a novelist, Trollope is also known for introducing freestanding postboxes (pillar boxes) to the UK from 1852 during his time working at the Post Office. How good is that? Working on the side as a postman as well as writing.

What amused me as well was “He wrote his earliest novels while working as a Post Office inspector, occasionally dipping into the lost-letter box for ideas” That sort of thing would get you the bullet these days!

Devonshire road

Still on the pillar box theme there’s a lovely Penfold Pillar box still in use in Devonshire Road, Forest Hill if you’re ever around that area and like that sort of thing (like we do). P