Thorney Tales (3) - The Jewel Tower
As Augustus J Hare (1834-1903) observed: "It will scarcely be credited by those who visit it that the destruction of this interesting building is occasionally in contemplation and that the present century for the sake of making a regular street will perhaps bear the stigma of having destroyed one of the most precious buildings in Westminster which if the houses around it were cleared away and it were preserved as a museum of Westminster antiquities would be the greatest possible addition to the group of historic buildings to which it belongs."
Survive it did. First, under Edward 111 (1312-1377), as a repository for the royal jewels and later as storage for official documents. When document storage was moved to the newly built Victoria Tower in 1869 the Jewel Tower became the place where official weights, measures and volumes for the whole of the British Empire were tested - including the volume of a pint of beer. This lasted until the arrival of the motor car and the construction of Lambeth Bridge when the resultant vibrations proved too much for such a delicate operation.
The lawn in front of today's Tower is roughly where the King's garden was in the private section of the Palace. Not that Edward was there very often. He had other homes to go to at Windsor, Eltham and Sheen. Only the Norman kings stayed regularly at Westminster so they could make a quick getaway down the Thames if the going got rough.
If you enter the ground floor room to pay your admission fee today and have a cup of coffee in the café, it would be easy to miss the beautifully constructed vaulted ceiling which wouldn't look out of place in a cathedral. The first floor has a stone vaulted ceiling installed in the 1750s as a fire precaution while the second floor looks much as it did in medieval times with a 14th century door and a wooden ceiling installed in 1949. The rectangular framed windows in the turret on the north (Abbey) side were almost certainly designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor as they are similar to other work he has done. He was Clerk of Works at Westminster where he designed the western entrance to the Abbey and lived in nearby Millbank.
Looking at the Tower from the road you can see the remains of a moat once used as a fishpond - beside which the drain from the Abbey ran to the river. The remains of the old fortification wall can also be seen protruding from the Tower.
Little known fact: The space to the left of the Jewel Tower, between the Tower and the old Abbey wall, was where prime ministers used to park their cars.
Visit to the RHS Lindley Library, 14th July 2015
The area that the Thorney Island calls its own has more than its fair share of cultural gems including Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament. But there are others too as we discovered during our visit to the Royal Horticultural Society's Lindley Library in Vincent Square, claimed to be the largest gardening library in the world. It is not commonly known but the library is freely open to the public in keeping with the RHS's founding aim of spreading knowledge. The library is on the right as you go in (after informing the front desk) where you can read but not borrow (unless you are a member) an amazing number of books including current magazines from around the world.
But the real magic is downstairs where Elizabeth Koper, the Outreach Librarian, took us after telling us the history of the library. She explained how the books of the great John Lindley (1799-1865), a self-taught horticulturalist who became one of the first professors at University College, London, became the source of the library even though much of it had to be sold on his death for financial reasons before being bought back later.
Downstairs, laid before us on tables, were venerable books from the collection including the star of the show - the first book on gardening in England by Thomas Hill published in 1586 during the reign of Elizabeth 1 two years before the Armada. The Gardeners Labyrinth, (the very small book on the table in picture) which chronicled prevailing gardening practices with illustrations, was popular for over a hundred years going through nine editions. Another gem was the catalogue assembled by the Tradescants, father and son, after their (separate) pioneering voyages to Russia and Virginia.
These were but some of many priceless books we were shown before being ushered into an adjoining room where lovely paintings of plants from the RHS' collection were explained to us including some memorable tulips and orchids. The most curious was a painting of the strain of potato associated with the Irish famine. Apparently, it is now a delicacy in Japan, a fact that would have been of particular interest to John Lindley who wrote a report in 1845 on the potato famine in Ireland. Many thanks, once again, to Pippa Parsons for organising such an enthralling visit and to Elizabeth Koper for being such an interesting guide.
New Scotland Yard, 10 Broadway
You may have read about the £370m sale of New Scotland Yard. One aspect of the sale is the removal of the Met back to its original home on the Embankment, into the renovated Curtis Green building, once an extension to the original Scotland Yard.
The other aspect, which involves The Thorney Island Society, is the proposal to develop the site with a mixed-use scheme for which there has just been a public consultation exhibition. What is proposed is retail on the ground floor, three floors of offices, and six towers of flats, the highest being 20 stories, fronting Victoria Street. The accompanying picture shows the proposed building at the corner between Victoria Street and Broadway. One good aspect to the scheme is that a wide pedestrian passageway is proposed, running between Victoria Street, almost opposite Abbey Orchard Street, to the Grade I listed 55 Broadway, the London Underground headquarters, now due to be converted into residential or other use. There will also be improvements to the public realm, both where the revolving Met sign now stands and to the existing green space (the old graveyard) next door on Victoria Street.
Various members of our committee went to the exhibition and came to much the same conclusion. The following comments were made:
While we agree that there are merits in the proposed scheme, especially in the improvement the public realm, we are concerned about the following:
The height of the buildings fronting Victoria Street
The precedent set by tall towers along this stretch
of Victoria Street, leading to the Abbey and Parliament
The supply of affordable housing is very low, thus
reducing the mixed-use aspect of this development.
Moreover we understand that this affordable housing
will not be social, which would be far more valuable in
addressing the housing crisis in London.
The mix would be improved if some office space could
be reserved for start-up companies, because small
office units are becoming more difficult to find in this
area. Some space for community use would be popular.
Appearance and materials
There has been a very negative reaction among our
members to the materials and detailing of the facades.
The detailing of the facades is far too ‘busy’, especially
the transition between the office floors and the residential
Queen's Walk Cycle Route, The Green Park
We were asked by the Royal Parks to comment on a proposal by Transport for London (TfL), as part of the Quietways Programme of the Central London Cycle Grid, to create a cycle path between Lancaster House and Picadilly. One of the possible routes would be on the much-used Queen’s Walk, along the eastern boundary of The Green Park. They also asked us to comment on their proposal to alter the ‘alignment of the paths in the south east corner of The Green Park, between the Canada Memorial and Queen’s Walk, in order to address the problem of informal desire lines / paths that are created by pedestrians using this area of the Park’.
We are in favour of improving the Quietway cycle network, but we are anxious that the use of bicycles on the Queen’s Walk, which is heavily used, especially by tourists walking from Green Park tube station to Buckingham Palace, is hazardous. The existing path is not very wide and the mix of pedestrians, whose course is not always predictable, and fast moving bicycles could lead to injuries. We are in favour of creating paths where there are existing desire lines. While we regret the loss of grass, when this grass is turned into mud by excessive wear a hard-surfaced path is preferable.
Here is The Royal Parks response to the latest consultation from Transport for London on the cycle superhighway :
The Garden Bridge Controversy
The Thorney Island Society is not taking a position on this issue as it is very far outside our geographical area of interest. However, as Londoners, most of us will have formed an opinion and may want to express it. If you haven’t, there have been several articles in the papers on the subject, for instance:
This presentation by the designers:
explains the genesis of the design and how they envisage the bridge working. But the reality, as you may have read, is now likely to be rather different, because public access will be restricted in various ways. Apart from the arguments about how it will be used and its accessibility, there are differing views of how it will look. Many people are very disturbed that views up and down the river will be destroyed. This is how the designers envisage the bridge:
This is how Michael Ball thinks it will look:
Michael Ball is head of the Waterloo Community Development Group, who are opposing the project, and he wrote the following, which expounds various arguments against the bridge:
Ball has just been granted a judicial review of the planning permission already given by Lambeth. This review will be largely to do with the maintenance funding for the bridge (£3.5m per year). But since then Boris Johnson has suggested that this will be underwritten by the GLA, thus negating the promise that the bridge will be mainly privately funded.
Thorney Tales (2) - The River Tyburn
Visit to Bridgewater House
Walking through the front door of Bridgewater House overlooking Green Park, you are almost blown over by
what you see. Instead of a hallway to a private residence you are immediately propelled into the Great Saloon
designed by Charles Barry as part of a reconstruction and looking like the forum of Barry's Reform Club only it
is even bigger. Standing on the million pound carpet and looking skywards towards the glass roof your eye is
caught by a ring of domes, half of which turn out to be mirror images.
At one end of the ground floor is a set of murals by Jakob Götzenberger depicting scenes from the masque Comus which was actually commisioned from John Milton (who lived for part of his life on the other side of St James' Park in Petty France) by a former owner of the house and depicts the Earl of Bridgewater talking to
Milton. Bridgewater was an ancestor of Lord Ellesmere who orchestrated the present reconstruction in the 1840s and to make sure posterity did not forget, he left dozens of his initials at strategic points throughout the house.
The famous gallery with works by Titian, da Vinci, Raphael, Rembrandt and others is no longer there having been converted into offices but we were able to get a glimpse of its former glory by seeing the pillars at either end, one section of which has been converted into a small chapel.
This is no ordinary dwelling. The original one was built around 1626 for Thomas Howard, Earl of Berkshire, and the outline of its remains can still be seen in the garden under favourable climatic conditions. It was later given to Barbara Villiers, one of Charles 11's most notorious mistresses, whom he is supposed to have visited via a tunnel from St James' Palace. The Earl of Salisbury occupied several rooms there when he was Prime Minister and it has also been used for global economic summits.
As this is a private residence (owned by the Latsis family) we were asked not to take any photos except in the garden (above) where we were entertained by John Kelly, the facilities manager, after he had given us a fascinating tour which none of us will easily forget. He also told us three surprising things about the house. First, although it is called Bridgewater House, no Bridgewater has actually lived there. Second, despite an extensive tour, we had only seen a third of the house. Third, the front of it is used as the entrance to the family's London home in the TV serial Downton Abbey (but no filming is allowed inside). A big thank you to John and to Pippa Parsons for organising a very successful visit.
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Thorney Tales (1) - Britain's Hidden Treasure Trove
What was it about this tiny stretch of land called Thorney Island, measuring barely 560m by 330m - that has had such an effect on the English-speaking world? If it had merely given birth to Westminster Abbey, where so many kings and queens of England were crowned and buried in competitive splendour it would have earned its place in history. But it also became the seat of government, and for over 500 years a palace for kings and queens.
The Cotton Library in Old Palace Yard became the foundation of the British library. Caxton set up the first English printing press there which changed the direction of the English language as did the King James Bible which was partly written there. The beautiful medieval Chapter House of the Abbey hosted Britain's first parliament and then became a repository for official documents - the forerunner of today's Public Record Office.
Was the galaxy of talent, including Ben Jonson, Christopher Wren, Henry Purcell, John Dryden and Edward Gibbon, that came out of Westminster School an accident or due to something they put into the water? Thorney Island, among numerous other things was also where the Fabian Society had its first headquarters and where the modern rules of association football were formulated. Is there any other area of land, anywhere in the world, so small in size that could claim as much?
Part of its success was due to what today we call the power of the network. It suited Edward the Confessor to move his palace from Winchester to Westminster near his beloved abbey and, later, Henry II to move the Exchequer to Thorney Island forming the first link between Westminster and the government of the land. Cotton's Library was convenient for peers and MPs being so close to parliament and Chaucer's printing presses were ideally suited to get business both from the abbey - among other things he had a contract to print indulgences – and from the growing masses of courtiers who lived and fluttered around the Court in hope of preferment. Everyone knew,and fed off, everyone else.
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