The opening of the Heath Robinson Museum on 15th October was a delightfully parochial event.
Cavaliers and Roundheads
Ollie Cromwell, aged just three
Just loved the Diamond Jubilee,
He’d wear a saucepan for a crown,
But soon it stuck there, upside down.
His Mother tugged, the boy turned pale,
Her efforts were to no avail,
The problem was, his Mother said,
That Ollie had such a round head.
After Harry Graham’s Ruthless Rhymes
Henry’s party in the street,
Would be a lovely royal treat,
To celebrate the Jubilee,
With flags and music, games and tea.
The food was good, he could not stop,
He ate until he went off pop,
From looking much like Henry Eight,
He ended up just Henry. Late.
After Harry Graham’s Ruthless Rhymes
Royalist vs Republican
A royalist simply through and through,
Fred turned his house red, white and blue.
It really was a sight to see,
All dressed up for the Jubilee.
But Mabel (maybe with good reason)
Showed inclinations close to treason.
Then with an axe found in the garden,
Fred refused to grant her pardon.
He smiled and said ‘Off with her head,
I’ll buy a corgi pup instead.’
After Harry Graham’s Ruthless Rhymes
Gorkhaland’s Wild West
The freshly brushed floor of compacted cow dung was smooth and cool under foot. I crossed the room, climbed into the heavy wooden bed next to Jamie and blew out the candle. Night crept in through the open window bringing with it the intoxicating scent of gardenias, and quietening the moths and insects that had been dive-bombing the candle’s flame. Curling up under the blanket, my body relaxed on to the hard mattress, while outside pale moonlight whispered through the forest on the other side of the valley. Somewhere on the horizon Kanchenjunga’s five tiger-toothed caps glinted silver against the black sky.
Wild in Cressbrook Dale
‘Wake up, little fellow. It’s time…’
My child of four sat bolt-upright in bed, eyes glassy from dreams of wild things.
‘…It’s time for our wild night out,’ I whispered.
It was a warm summer’s evening in June, the light of the day gently fading out; the air beginning to cool. Jamie’s small chubby hand fitted perfectly in mine, like a Russian doll within a Russian doll, as we slowly descended the stairs. On the kitchen table, a rucksack sat ready, the items needed for our adventure laid out beside it.
A New Year’s Hobby
Margot declared, ‘new year, new me!’
Her new interest? Taxidermy.
She caught and stuffed her children’s rat,
Posed on a plinth the family cat.
Their guinea pig she slit in half;
Her husband lowered his Telegraph.
‘You’re making quite a mess, my dear.
Perhaps just join the gym next year?’
Aunt thought she’d make a contribution
to uncle’s New Year resolution.
She put his bottles out of reach
amongst the polish, soap and bleach.
How on earth could she have guessed
that in his alcoholic quest,
without his specs his sight was dim.
It was the bleach which finished him.
After Harry Graham’s Ruthless Rhymes
George’s New Year’s Resolution
New Year, he thought, was just the chance
To buy a little place in France.
When Mavis once again said no,
George knew that she would have to go.
His beating heart was all a-quiver,
As George pushed Mavis in the river.
And as she floated down the stream,
George shrugged and muttered, ‘Vive la dream’.
After Harry Graham’s Ruthless Rhymes
The practitioners of the modern architectural establishment are on the march again. Like matron, they are determined to force another dose of utilitarianism down our throats.
In our Architectural Mini-Quiz, launched on 23rd August, we asked you to say which of these three buildings you preferred: (from left) A, B or C. We can now report that 71% of respondents chose A, 20% B and 9% C. There is a lesson here.
Walter Crane was born in Liverpool on 15th August 1845. His prolific career reached its zenith with his brightly coloured toy books, created for children but prized by connoisseurs of design. The popularity of these books was hardly surprising, given the care that went into their production and the colours which glowed from every page.
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Last Thursday, as a member of the Railway Heritage Trust Advisory Panel, I toured the works at King’s Cross, where Lewis Cubitt’s 1852 terminus is being restored and a new concourse added.
Up on the roof, as we walked along the valley gutter between the twin trainshed arches, we saw new plate-glass and solar-voltaic panels being installed. From the parapet of the station façade we could survey the entire battlefield of 19th-century railway rivalry, the plain engineering style of the Great Northern at King’s Cross facing the Gothic upstart of the Midland’s St Pancras across the road. Further west, now converted into a concrete hulk, lies the terminus of the North Western at Euston, on which the statue of Britannia atop St Pancras turns her back.
The Project Director for King’s Cross, Ian Fry, has all the ebullience of a railway engineer who knows he is creating the future. We have come a long way from the two original Departures and Arrivals platforms at King’s Cross, with sidings in between. Passenger numbers are now higher than they were in the 1920s, and are expected to continue rising, so a large new concourse is essential. It is being built in the space between King’s Cross and the Great Northern Hotel. As the last of the scaffolding is dismantled, the sweep of the honeycomb roof can be appreciated. ‘Jaw-dropping’ is what most visitors tell Fry, and it is. As a new railway building, it’s as good as you get, and Fry is justly proud of his achievement. Maybe his name will rank alongside Cubitt’s a hundred years from now.
As we toured the station, I was ready to embrace the undeniable feats of engineering which have created underground service tunnels, sweeping passenger interchanges and concrete underpinning good enough to last a thousand years. The reglazed trainshed roofs will look stunning when all the gantries and covers have been removed. Part of the western range of buildings which was destroyed by a bomb in the Second World War is finally being rebuilt. The original booking office will be re-opened and the largest railway pub in Britain created further up the platform. Where necessary, panelled sash windows are being reinstated and the original station master’s office will once again become operational.
What I was uneasy about, when I saw the first drawings, I am still uneasy about. The new honeycomb-roofed concourse is a soaring success in its own right, but it is, as Ian Fry proclaimed, a new railway building, and as such it upstages Cubitt’s original design. Like a flying saucer, it has come to rest between two 19th-century developments, the western range of King’s Cross station and the back of the Great Northern Hotel, to which it is attached. It has nothing in common with either. Its steel girders cascade down in front of Cubitt’s western frontage, partly obscuring it. The mellow brick and sash windows of the original station are now seen through a glass screen. Two different idioms are jammed together, and inevitably they conflict. Cubitt’s idiom is Victorian domestic in brick, stone and wood, allied with engineering prowess in wrought iron and glass. Fry’s idiom is steel and concrete, and at the base of the new flying saucer you can see massive reinforced steel joists and concrete footings. Fine it may be, but it has nothing to do with the listed buildings it is supposed to complement.
The language of today’s engineer is steel and concrete, loads and functions. I do not doubt Fry’s satisfaction in the work he has undertaken to restore and reinstate so much of Cubitt’s station. He is to be congratulated for his enthusiasm and evident commitment. My concern is broader. Steel and concrete bring structural strength, and with strength comes superiority. It is only too easy for today’s engineers to assume that new is better. You can see the march of this belief in cities all over the world. Right here, there is an example of thoughtless modernism in the extension to St Pancras station, a glass box which bears no relation to the Barlow trainshed or the rich polychrome brickwork of the main station. The same is true of the Underground tunnels and concourses which are supposed to be part of the scheme.
Engineers and planners think it’s okay to jam a utilitarian box up against a soaring piece of architecture, but they are wrong. It will take decades more before this mistake is recognized for what it is, and by then our cities will be that much uglier than they have already become since the end of the Second World War. The extension of St Pancras is in everyday use, and I use it. The new concourse of King’s Cross will be opened early next year, and I will use that, too. But I will be hoping that, in a new age of enlightenment still to commence, architects and engineers will once again take a Grand Tour of the styles, master the subtleties of idiom and refrain from cramming unadorned steel and concrete down our throats.
There will be another test of architectural awareness when the 1970s concourse in front of King’s Cross is cleared away and an open plaza created. Two ventilation shafts from the Underground will remain. How should they be clothed and camouflaged? Here is an opportunity. Planners, engineers, architects and designers should ask themselves, what is the prevailing idiom of King’s Cross? What are the prevailing materials?
In designing a sign for the station entrance, they should ask the same questions. A quick look at the entrance to the re-opened St Pancras Hotel might provide a clue.
The views expressed here are my own and do not represent Railway Heritage Trust policy. To see pictures of the King’s Cross Regeneration Project, please visit our Facebook page (below) and click on Photos.
Scott of St Pancras · St Pancras Hotel
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Today is the bicentenary of the birth of Sir George Gilbert Scott, the architect who designed the Albert Memorial in Kensington Gardens and the soaring hotel at St Pancras station. The hotel re-opened on 5th May, with many of its original features restored.
As publishers of The Victorian House Book and The Railway Heritage of Britain, we are instantly alert to any good-news story about Victorian architecture, still the butt of modernist derision 30 years after the death of Sir John Betjeman, and few stories can have had such a positive slant as the re-opening of the St Pancras Hotel. Formerly called the Midland Grand Hotel, to reflect the aspirations of the Midland Railway, one of the last to reach London, it was the grandest of grand termini. Its architect, Sir George Gilbert Scott (1811-78), designed everything, right down to the chandeliers and the door handles. Abandoned by British Rail in 1985, it stood empty for 20 years. On 5th May 2011 it reopened as a luxury hotel. Excitingly, the decorators discovered the original wallpaper in what is now the Sir Gilbert Scott Suite, and it has been faithfully reprinted and reinstated, along with many other original details all over the building. The 1873 restaurant has been brought back to life as The Gilbert Scott. As the hotel historian Royden Stock has said, it is amazing that they have got it this right.
My own connection to the St Pancras Hotel goes back to 1983 when we published The Railway Heritage of Britain in association with the British Railways Board. The project was the brainchild of Bernard Kaukas, Director – Environment at British Rail; he was the only contributor permitted to comment on the embarrassingly poor state of Britain’s railway architecture. In his piece on The Splendours and Miseries of British Rail’s Architectural Heritage, we showed a picture of the western tower of the St Pancras Hotel, freshly washed on his orders. The rest of the façade was left dirty. As the caption explained, it would cost at least another £1 million to finish cleaning the brickwork, and at the time it seemed a faint hope that even the exterior would be done, let alone the interior. As we prepared the book for publication, we spread out scores of 8 x 10 in. black and white prints from the hotel’s 19th-century heyday and gawped at the magnificence of Scott’s reception rooms, with antimacassars on the armchairs and chandeliers ablaze. We never imagined we would see this lavish magnificence faithfully recreated.
Shortly after the publication of the book, the Railway Heritage Trust was founded with financial support from British Rail, under the chairmanship of Sir William McAlpine. Luminaries from the worlds of railways and architecture became members of the Advisory Panel, and I was honoured to be invited to join them. In 1995 the annual meeting of the Advisory Panel was held in the dilapidated grandeur of the St Pancras Hotel, interrupted by a prolonged power cut. In the gloom of an October afternoon, we toured miles of silent corridors, peering into empty bedrooms where the soot spilled out of abandoned fireplaces. Encouragingly, we were shown that beneath each floor there was a cavernous crawl space through which, in principle, modern wiring and plumbing could be routed. The question was, could any investors be found to take on such a daunting and extravagant project?
Now we have the answer. The hotel is once again open, and next week, following a hard-hat inspection of the engineering works in progress at King’s Cross, I will once again ascend the grand staircase and tour the St Pancras Hotel, this time occupied by guests and refulgent in all its Gothic splendour. I doff my hat to Sir John Betjeman, who sounded the call to honour and preserve our Victorian heritage. Thanks to him, we can still celebrate and enjoy some of our greatest 19th-century architectural achievements, including this one on the bicentenary of Sir George Gilbert Scott’s birth.
There is a very good BBC news report, including a clip of Sir John Betjeman touring the St Pancras Hotel, and you can see it by clicking here. It is also well worth watching Tim Hayward’s review of Marcus Wareing’s new restaurant at St Pancras, The Gilbert Scott. If you are up for some bureaucrat bashing, read Simon Jenkins in The Guardian.
To see pictures of the re-opened St Pancras Hotel, please visit our Facebook page (below) and click on Photos.
Scott of St Pancras
In Japan, frogs were thought to bring good fortune, allowing money to return to a person (the Japanese word for ‘frog’ is the same as ‘to return’). This little frog certainly looks as if he might have special powers, as he gazes up at the starry sky. This is our favourite design by The London Stained Glass Company. You can see more designs by visiting their web-site, which can be reached from Victorian House Decoration in Links.
A front entrance with original tessellated tiles inevitably looks tired after more than a century of use, as this house in Dagnan Road, south-west London, demonstrates (below left). Replacing like with like will generally produce the best result, as can be seen from the front entrance of a neighbouring house.
Two of our neighbours in Cavendish Road have relaid their front paths in true Victorian style, and what an entrance they have made! They have used the right tiles with square-cut edges, not the rounded modern alternatives which never look as good.
‘I do like the traditional look,’ says the owner of the house on the right, who acted as project manager. He has found Victorian rope-top border tiles to trim the sides of the paths and commissioned new railings, complete with decorative pineapples to top off the gate posts. ‘The visitor had to be left in no doubt as to the owner’s position in society,’ wrote Robin Guild in The Victorian House Book, discussing the importance of the front entrance. Attitudes have changed since this south London house was built in 1893, but the truth of the statement is still evident more than a century on. Use the right architectural detail and you will impress.
These tiles were laid by the Victorian Tile Co., 07976 937 667.
The humorous verse of Harry Graham was an early hit with several 20th-century literary figures, including W. H. Auden, George Orwell and Agatha Christie. The hilarious rhymes they adored as children remained with them, popping up unexpectedly in their heads during their writing careers.
W. H. Auden
When asked by The Paris Review whether reading poetry had influenced his decision to write, Auden responded that as a child the only poetry he had been interested in was the ‘sick’ kind, including Harry Graham’s Ruthless Rhymes for Heartless Homes. Here is his favourite:
Into the drinking well
The plumber built her
Aunt Maria fell;
We must buy a filter.
Orwell was struck by an anecdote in Salvador Dali’s autobiography which described how Dali had kicked his sister in the head as a child. This reminded him of something: ‘What was it?’ he asked himself. ‘Of course! Ruthless Rhymes for Heartless Homes, by Harry Graham.’
Poor little Willy is crying so sore,
A sad little boy is he,
For he’s broken his little sister’s neck
And he’ll have no jam for tea.
A reader of murder mysteries asked Agatha Christie about the origin of four lines of poetry quoted by one of her characters. Had Christie written these herself? Christie admitted she had not, nor could she remember where she had heard them. The reader then started to investigate. She wrote to everyone she could think of to try to find out the source of the mystery rhyme but no one recognized it. Except, that is, for the crime writer Ruth Rendell. Yet she too struggled to recollect who had written the troublesome fragment.
The days passed slowly, one by one;
I fed the ducks, reproved my wife,
Played Handel’s Largo on the fife,
Or gave the dog a run.
Eventually, it was Miles Kington who saved the day. He discovered the lines in When Grandmama Fell Off The Boat and was able to solve the case of the missing rhyme.
When Grandmama Fell Off The Boat is the only comprehensive anthology of Graham’s humorous verse, compiled with the help of his daughter, Virginia. It contains not only the best of his Ruthless Rhymes but also a selection of longer poems, and it is in one of these, Creature Comforts, that Agatha Christie’s quotation can be found.
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This is an excerpt from the Publisher’s speech at The Victorian House Book launch party, Brunswick House, Vauxhall Cross.
Why did we do a book on Victorian houses? There are more of them in Great Britain than any other period house. A quarter of the British housing stock is Victorian. Nearly six million of us live in them and we all have to look at them when we walk or drive through our cities and towns. When I was a small boy living in Kent, my grandfather used to drive us up to London for a Christmas treat – Peter Pan on ice or Bertram Mills’ Circus – and as we made our way through the Victorian suburbs of Catford, Lewisham, New Cross, Peckham and Camberwell, I witnessed scenes of sad dilapidation. What had been Class I gentleman’s villas now had cars parked in their front gardens, garden walls crumbling, paint peeling off the windows, brickwork dark from London soot, front doors drab and cluttered with inappropriate ironmongery. Rows of plastic doorbells testified to the scourge of multi-occupation.