Category: Secret London

Hampstead Pond: Taking the plunge

Hampstead Pond: Taking the plunge

It’s one of those places you have a vague idea exists, might be fun to visit, but can safely be put off until some unspecified time in the future. In reality it’s stuffed in that bulging file at the back of your mental filing cabinet marked ‘never’. Could be a laugh, but never going to happen, not in this life.

And then it does. Last Saturday I went for an invigorating dip at Hampstead Pond.

When I moved to London some time during the late 70s, I lived in Camden Town and with Hampstead Heath up the road, rumours of pond based aquatic activity came our way, but somehow when you’re in your twenties swimming isn’t right up there on that pressing list of ‘things to do’. In those days, verbs ending with -ing were usually prefaced by the words pub and club.

A close neighbour, he lives two doors down, waxed lyrical about Hampstead Pond life at a drinks party last Christmas, but with snow on the ground and ice on the water I said thanks, but no thanks. Ice has its place, in a gin & tonic, I don’t want to be encased in the stuff. Then came this long hot summer and with the mercury locked on 30c, I finally decided to take the plunge.

The four swimmable ponds at Hampstead Heath, which were originally reservoirs, are set aside for: Mixed bathing, Women, Men and Dogs. Yup that’s right, if your pet pooch fancies a doggie paddle walk this way. It’s mixed bathing for dogs, but the place I came to visit was the Men’s Pond, which officially opened for business 125 years ago this year.

Right from the outset it was very popular and started to attract hardy year-round swimmers. The Times, at the time, called the pond ‘A heroic form of the Englishman’s morning tub’ and said winter bathers were ‘an inoffensive kind of lunatic, who harm nobody but themselves.’ They were known as ‘The Barmy Club’.

Eccentricity still prevails with one set of regular visitors, mostly comprising American bankers, calling themselves ‘The East German Ladies’ Swimming Team’. They meet at 9am every Saturday and Sunday, take a brisk trot round the Heath and then descend on the Men’s Pond for a swim. They are easily spotted on account of their natty, branded togs and their boisterous behaviour.

The neighbour and I pitched up at 8.30am on a warm, bright, blustery day when there were perhaps fifteen people present. Apparently, during this tropical summer, the afternoons get mobbed which is why the old-timers I met, turn up early.

The Pond is looked after by the Corporation of London and they don’t exactly splash the cash on the facilities, which are basic in the extreme. The showers are cold and there are no lockers to secure your valuables. But such was the amiable bonhomie of the place, I find it hard to believe that pilfering takes place at that hour of the morning.

There’s a jetty and diving board that juts out into the pond from where I took the plunge. The water was a balmy 25 degrees and felt more like a warm bath as I bobbed and swam around the pond. To enjoy the place, you need to be a reasonable swimmer. The pond is deep, there’s nowhere to stand and there’s no pontoon on which to lounge, but not exactly being Mark Spitz myself I occasionally hung on to some strategically placed life savers that mark out the swimming area.

We swam for around twenty minutes in idyllic surroundings, changed and showered (brr!) and then a bunch of us, the neighbour knows everyone, repaired to Bistro Laz on Highgate Hill West where the coffee is excellent and the wild swimmers a kindly bunch to engage in conversation for the first time.

It looks like the bug has bit. I’m going back tomorrow.

Pond update 4.8.18

Diana sent me this great little Pathe News film from the 30s of the Women’s  Pond. Click here to watch. 

Phoney viagra seized at Nine Elms Market, Daily Mail gets hard-on

Phoney viagra seized at Nine Elms Market, Daily Mail gets hard-on

Last week I blogged about a visit I made to Nine Elms Sunday Market. The large police presence and the seizure of counterfeit goods caught my eye. Tipped off by plod, the Mail ran with the story later in the week.

Viagra always makes a great subject as it allows papers like the Mail to be slightly prurient and indulge in a spot of innuendo. Viagra: Raising more than suspicion!

But even the mighty Daily Mail no longer employs the number of journalists it did, so no reporter will have been sent to cover the story. The facts came from Queenstown Police and the story will have been written by a hack back at their HQ in Kensington.

But, here’s the problem, with a story like this you need quotes from punters.

So, a witness at the scene apparently told the Mail: ‘Someone could have bought that perfume and it could (have) caused harm to someone’s skin, but if it was something taken orally like medication it could have had catastrophic events’. Trust me no one, and I mean no one, talks like that down Nine Elms. Taken orally? Give over.

And this: But one shopper said counterfeit goods were ‘rife at stall after stall’. No one in the history of the world has used the word ‘rife’ at New Covent Garden.

You don’t think the Mail made up these quotes, do you? Perish the thought.

Vauxhall Park model village gets suffragette makeover

Vauxhall Park model village gets suffragette makeover

The tiny houses in the Rose Garden of Vauxhall Park are getting a makeover. Nobby, aided by his trusty dog Sandy, said he was giving the crofts and cottages a lick of paint in the suffragette colours of purple, green and white.

Why the suffragette colours? February of this year saw the 100th anniversary of the Representation of the People Act 1918 which enabled all men and some women over the age of 30 to vote for the first time and paved the way for universal suffrage 10 years later. Vauxhall Park has a connection.

Henry Fawcett (1833-1884) lived in a grand house on the site of the park. He was a Member of Parliament and was blinded at the age of 25 when shot by his father’s gun while the pair were out partridge shooting. Clearly a determined man he became Post Master General, started the parcel post and encouraged women to work at the Post Office.

Vauxhall parkIt was Fawcett’s wish to turn his garden into a communal park after his death. His wife, Millicent Fawcett, made it happen. Involved in the suffragette movement, she became president of the National Union of Woman’s Suffrage Societies in 1897. She also founded Newnham College Cambridge. Quite the power couple.

Talking with Nobby (or Nobby the Grab, to give him his full name) while he was taking a break from the painting and decorating, he told me the houses were made in 1948 by Edgar Wilson who sent a set of 30 to Melbourne, Australia by way of thanks for the food packages sent to us during the war. Next time you’re down under you can take a look.

There are also a couple of tiny detached houses in Brockwell Park near the clock tower.

As to the ones in Vauxhall, local hoodlums used to nick them until Nobby came up with the brilliant idea of filling them with sand and rocks so making them too heavy to shift. There’s only one original ‘Boat House’ left, the other two were made by the man himself. I should point out that Nobby does this on a purely volunteer basis, so if you see him about he deserves a big thank you.

Urban Axe Throwing

Urban Axe Throwing

If you get it right the axe spins gracefully through the air and hits the target with a satisfying thonk. If you get it wrong, it falls clattering to the ground. Welcome to Urban Axe Throwing, taking place at a railway arch in Vauxhall; it’s like darts on steroids.

The firm, Whistle Punks, set up the Vauxhall part of their operation just over a year ago. On the night I went with two friends there were around thirty, mostly young people present, both men and women.

You sign up online, it costs £29 per person, and are immediately given some ground rules. Turn up smelling of alcohol and you’re out, and no you can’t throw an axe at a picture of your ex. There was a two-minute safety brief at the start of the event, and unusually in these circumstances, people were actually paying attention. Flying axes seemed to concentrate people’s minds.

You warm up with some practice throws (it’s not as easy as it looks by the way) to get your eye in and thereafter there’s a competition. My two mates made the semi-final, I’m ashamed to say I did not and so wasn’t covered in blades of glory.

I asked the winner of the competition, who was spectacular, if he’d done it before. He hadn’t and seemed as bemused as the rest of us as to how good he was.

You conclude by throwing two axes at once and doing some trick shots; well let’s say you attempt to do some trick shots. The whole thing lasts for 90 minutes, which seemed the perfect length of time.

Apparently, the sport, if you can call it that, comes from Canada. There, itinerant lumberjacks are won’t to while away the evening chucking axes at trees, but that’s Rural Axe Throwing, nobody was wearing red checked shirts in Vauxhall.

From a money-making perspective there’s one big flaw with Whistle Punks’ business model. They can’t sell beer. If you think of an equivalent night out, perhaps darts, snooker or bowling, these are always accompanied by alcohol. Not an option when people are chucking large lumps of lacerating metal about the place.

The axe wrangler who looked after us did a great job, was very upbeat, roaring ‘Bullseye’ when someone hit the spot. But beware, even the pros can get in trouble; he recently dislocated his shoulder.

Want to try something a little different, perhaps release a bit of pent up irritation? Then chucking axes at a wooden target might be just the thing. Next team building event for the office?

Thanks to Gyuri Szabo for the  wonderful pictures: check out what he does here.

Terror on the tube: Inspector Sands to the rescue

Terror on the tube: Inspector Sands to the rescue

I don’t want to alarm you but if while riding on the tube you hear an announcer say: “Would Inspector Sands report immediately to security” you may be part of an unfolding terror attack.

Apparently ‘Inspector Sands’ is the bland formulation used to alert staff, but not the public, that trouble might be brewing. What you don’t want in times of crisis is an announcer going into the ‘we’re all doomed’ routine, so the fictitious inspector fits the bill.

I know about this because my 14-year-old daughter told me and as far as can be established said 14-year-old has never been wrong about anything, ever.

Following some in depth google-research on my part it seems there might be something to it. Apparently, it originated in theatres and was used in case of fire. The name Sands being selected because they used sand to put out the fire.

And now you’re thinking: For heaven’s sake Jim, Inspector Sands because they use sand to put out the fire? Well please yourself, but the 14-year-old claims to have heard the announcement twice: once at Clapham South and once as Waterloo. She came through without a scratch.

Secret London: Postman’s Park

Secret London: Postman’s Park

The City of London, financial capital of the world, home to The Gherkin, the Walkie Talkie, the Cheese Grater and other towering monuments to the power of capitalism. As is well known its streets are paved with bitcoin. All of which is rather in danger of overpowering a little splash of green located at its heart known as Postman’s Park.

To be honest at first glance it doesn’t look up too much. It’s just a tiny garden, a former graveyard, (honestly, I don’t spend all my downtime in cemeteries) that’s located close to where the General Post Office building once stood, hence the name.

It has the usual London Plane trees, some uninspiring Hosta shrubs and a few sad banana trees that cut a forlorn sight on a cold winter’s day.

The reason you go, is to look at Watt’s Memorial, a strange and melancholy  piece of Victoriana that commemorates deeds of heroic self-sacrifice, often by children. A rather rickety shelter is home to 62 plaques that document the death of an individual who died trying to save another.

  • ‘David Selves supported his drowning playfellow and sank with him clasped in his arms.’
  • ‘William Donald aged 19 drowned in the Lea trying to save a lad from a dangerous entanglement of weed.’
  • ‘Sarah Smith, a pantomime artist, who died of terrible injuries received when attempting in her inflammable dress to extinguish the flames which had enveloped her companion.’

All of them touching stories that George Frederick Watts made it his life’s work to commemorate. Watts, a minor Victorian painter, suggested the idea in a letter to The Times to mark Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. He had been collecting newspaper cuttings of heroic self-sacrifice and from these the names were chosen.

The memorial opened in 1900, just four years before Watts died. In 2007 another name, Leigh Pitt, was added. He drowned saving a nine-year-old boy who had fallen into a canal. It has been decided that no further names will be added.

If you want to know more about the individual stories, then visit this website.

If you want to see for yourself, jump on a tube to St Paul’s and take a two-minute walk up St Martin’s Le Grand. Go on a summer’s day – you’ll be glad you did and thanks to the reader who suggested I check out their little bit of Secret London.

Random thought: A writer should base a short story on each plaque.

 

Secret London: Brompton Cemetery

Secret London: Brompton Cemetery

A while back I asked readers where they would take people who had never visited the capital before. I was hoping for recommendations that went beyond Madame Tussauds and the London Eye. I was after the hidden treats that make London a special place; perhaps a favourite café or park, something off the beaten track.

Picking up on one of the many suggestions and accompanied by the wife, two teenagers and Battersea Bucket we headed to Brompton Cemetery. Although a Royal Park, which are usually kept in peak condition, this boneyard is quite a mess, which perhaps makes it all the more interesting.

Victorian era

Opened at the start of the Victorian era, when death was enjoying a good run, it was built to ease pressure on overcrowded graveyards elsewhere in the capital. The earliest graves are from the 1830s and with most family members long since dead no one tends the graves. Weeds and squirrels rule.

Imagine the most Gothic thing you can think of and then season with a bit more Gothic to taste, then chuck the pot in. The Victorians had a bizarre relationship with death and for the upper and middle classes this place was clearly a portal to their next destination which would be almost indistinguishable from their comfortable English life but with added cherubs.

Allow all of the above to marinade for almost 200 years, let the grass grow, let the memorial angels fall into disrepair, bring your own smoke machine and you have the perfect horror movie location. It’s a graveyard smash.

Suffragette

Unlike Highgate Cemetery which boasts Marx, Douglas Adams, Malcom McLaren and George Eliot, Brompton is not chock full of celebri-toombs – there is suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst and cricket stats supremo John Wisden, but that’s about your lot. Ms Pankhurst is located at the north end of the park and has, quite rightly, a rather fine modernist tombstone. We were unable to locate Mr Wisden, perhaps he moved.

Dogs are meant to be kept on particular paths but as I’ve long suspected Battersea Bucket can’t read and so made herself at home amongst the dear departed. The teenagers found rather maudlin entertainment doing mental maths as to how old people were when they died. Well I guess GCSEs are coming up.

To get there jump on the District Line tube and get off at West Brompton. The northern gate is a two-minute walk away.

I can’t deny it was an odd morning out, we saw a man carrying two enormous blue parrots (go figure), but it’s not without interest.

From signs placed at the entrance it seems Heritage Fund money has become available to do the place up. Some might welcome this but I’m not so sure. It’s current horror-show state seems to suit it well.