Sunday, December 21, 2008

East End Engineering

But before I come to the Engineering stuff.. a pub!

The Mayflower in Rotherhithe Street is one of those historic pubs in London that you have to visit at some point. Despite being in the capital for over 12 years, that time came only this weekend and by chance!

What's the story then? From the quayside here, near a pub called the Shippe, the Mayflower set sail for America in the spring of 1620, carrying Protestants fleeing religious persecution. Captain Christopher Jones and his passengers were to become the Pilgrim "Founding" Fathers.

The Mayflower and its crew returned to Rotherhithe in 1621. Jones died a year later and was buried at St. Mary’s Churchyard opposite. A century later the Shippe was rebuilt and renamed the Spread Eagle and Crown. In 1957 the pub was restored and renamed the Mayflower.

It is apparently licensed to sell both U.S. and British postage stamps, having been a post office for the river, though it is not clearly whether this right has survived the latest Government post office closure rounds, or indeed whether Mandelson plans to sell part of the pub to TNT.

With a mere two pounds in my pocket, it was a half of Abbot for me, the beer being of the Greene King variations. I explored the pub - it is very cosy, with pictures and drawings of the area and its nautical connections.

The food has won awards, but was not to be sampled today. Out the other side, the riverside terrace is pleasant, with one especially interesting feature - the doors leading out to it from the pub appear to be flood doors, and given the green algae right up them, I presume they are used on a regular spring-tide basis!

If you fancy visiting, a milestone on the front of the pub notes that it is two miles to London Bridge along the Thames Path. Alternatively, Canada Water on the Jubilee is the closest station.

The Brunel Tunnel and Museum

So how did I happen upon the Mayflower? Simple - it's opposite the Brunel Museum, which I visited on Saturday. It had to be Saturday as this was the last day of the special access to the Brunel Tunnel, happening every Saturday in December, and possible because of engineering work on the East London Lines meaning the tunnel was not in use by tube trains.

The rail entrance to the tunnels today


Half the diameter of the dome of St Paul’s, the grand entrance hall of the Thames Tunnel had been opened up for the first time in a hundred and forty years. In 1825 Brunel allowed visitors to see the works for a shilling; this became a "suggested" donation of £5. Views were subject to the constraints imposed by the building programme.

The work is part of extending the Brunel Museum into the lift shaft.

How the hall will look

So what's the story with the tunnel? Built by Sir Marc Brunel and his son Isambard between 1825 and 1843, the tunnel connected Wapping with Rotherhithe, and was revolutionary in being the first tunnel anywhere through soft ground under water, and is still the oldest tunnel on the present London Underground.

On its first day of opening 50,000 people walked through the tunnel, which was hailed as one of the new wonders of the world, and a million visits were chalked up in the first 15 weeks (NB London at this time only had a total population of about double this!)

Unfortunately without the access tunnels which were planned, freight never used the tunnel, and after 20 years as an underwater shopping arcade and a venue for tightrope walkers and sword swallowers, it was finally sold in 1869 and became a railway tunnel.

The skill of the workforce and the genius of the Brunels had achieved their aim at last - the tunnel carried cargo. It was electrified and became part of the Underground in 1913.

A Sketch of the original tunnel

So what were we doing today? I had understood that we were to go down into the tunnels via the access shaft, and after about an hour and a half's wait, spent in the museum and attached cafe (fine carrotcake), it was my turn, along with three others.

We were led round the fence, and had to climb over a wall, duck down and creep into a hole about 3 feet high. Inside here, we were at the top of scaffolding over the shaft. But what's this? No tunnels! They had just installed a concrete floor down below, over the tunnel roof!

We could see the markings on the wall where the original staircase went down, and haf some of our view explained by the chap from the museum shouting through the hole. It was very cramped, and worth seeing, but a real shame we didn't get to see the tunnels - I thought this was the whole point - that with the trains not running we could go down? Oh well..

Interesting, but not exactly what I had expected!

The Thames Barrier

Working so often in East London recently, I thought this was the perfect opportunity to pop along and have a closer look at the Thames Barrier, which I did by bus from Greenwich.

There's a visitor's centre, but I settled for the close up walk along the river approach. Ideally I'd recommend visiting to see one of the scheduled maintenance closures, as listed on the website above. They're generally early morning (gulp!).

So what is it? The Thames Barrier is a flood prevention system on the River Thames, constructed between 1974 and 1984 at Woolwich Reach, and first used defensively in 1983. It has been used over 100 times defensively, and is the world's second largest movable flood barrier.

It is designed to prevent a high-tide storm surge combination from flooding central London. As my family live *downstream* of it, this is of particular interest... where does all this water go?! Still, my family's house is at least a few metres above sea level, we'll be alright until the polar caps melt! But how will the Tate and Lyle sugar factory across the river survive?!

Tate and Lyle

Before 1990, the number of barrier closures was one to two per year on average. Since 1990, the number of barrier closures has increased to an average of about four per year. In 2003 the Barrier was closed on 14 consecutive tides. The barrier was closed twice on 9 November 2007 after a storm surge in the North Sea which was compared to the one in 1953.

Right. It's freezing. Time to go home!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Marvellous Cork Street

I'm somewhat fed up with the escalating costs of exhibitions at the major galleries in London. Blockbuster shows now command a steep 15 pounds entry fee, and this doesn't always guarantee access to a particularly impressive show. Hadrian at the British Museum was a very expensive disappointment, for example.

The latest example of pricing art back out of the public domain can be found at the National Portrait Gallery, where the Annie Leibovitz photography exhibition, which I would love to see, is 11 pounds! Now I know these shows are not cheap to put on, but American Express, Bridgepoint and Gap are sponsoring already, and surely a reduced price will encourage more to visit, thereby broadening the reach of the art, which is surely one of the goals of the gallery?

So it is in this vein that I have switched tack slightly in where I go for my artistic daily bread. After trawling through the TimeOut online art listings, I collated a list of shows I would like to see, sorted by finish date. Lovingly programmed into a Google Apps list at, I now need never miss a show through incompetence (being busy or broke are still valid excuses).

Now, out of this list something interesting emerged - specifically, an awful number of galleries I'd never heard of... Helly Nahmad, Grosvenor Vahedra, Transition, Rollo, Rochelle School, Sprueth Magers, Faggionato, Alexandre Pollazzon... Where on earth were all these places?

Well the answer is that they are all commercial galleries, i.e. places where people go to buy art. They tend to be smaller than the public galleries, and can be somewhat offputting, but they are free, are usually empty (contrast the dreadful packed blockbusters), and in my limited experience are generally staffed by really friendly nice people who are prepared to spend time with you explaining what you are viewing and guiding you very gently (if so required) to opening your wallet and parting with ten grand or so. Which is clearly never going to happen!

If you want a starter for ten on the commercial gallery front, go down to Cork Street, just behind the Royal Academy. Lined with at least a dozen galleries, this place is a treasure trove of every kind of art. The main problem.. most only open weekdays from 10 till 5, but there are exceptions, especially when they are hosting specific exhibitions - check individual websites for details.

So recently here's some of what I've caught recently (some of which I've already blogged about), and I must highlight that visiting the following did not cost me a penny:

Les Années Folles: Paris in the Twenties at Helly Nahmad

Jia Jia Wang, Home, Home Again at Alexandre Pollazzon

Awopbopaloobop at the Transition Gallery

30 Years of Solitude at Asia House

Oleg Vassiliev at Faggionato

Edge of Arabia at Brunel Gallery

Mark Shields - Colloquy Grosvenor Vadehra

Thomas Demand - The Oval Office Sprueth Magers

Cupboard Love 3 Greenwich Foot Tunnel

Tom Wesselmann: 'Journeys into the Landscape' at Bernard Jacobson

Turmoil and Tranquility at the Queen's House, National Maritime Museum

Go enjoy art for free in London! Down with the blockbusters!!

Saturday, December 13, 2008

A Wet Afternoon Between Galleries

Today was the last day of the Edge of Arabia exhibition which I was keen to see. Hosted at the Brunei Gallery at SOAS, the exhibition showcased the work of 17 Saudi artists.

Edge of Arabia - Contemporary Art from Saudi Arabia

The art of the Middle East has long been interesting to me, though with this exhibition the dangerous word "contemporary" had crept into the precis. Just how contemporary, I wondered as I arrived?!

The works were hit and miss - some I felt were rubbish - a wall filled with wooden boards scratched and doodled upon, some sculpture. Others were beautiful and inspiring, including some large colourful impressionist and patterned art. The highlight for me was the collection of prints by Shadia and Raja Alem, each with a paragraph of verse in Arabic, French and English opposite an illustrated figure related to the text.

Shadia and Raja Alem's Work

Ataa Al Riyadh

In the same building there were also two other exhibitions:

A People's Migration - The Bakhtiari Kuch
A photography exhibition put together by Caroline Mawer of the nomadic Bakhtiari tribes of SW Iran. The Bakhtiari were especially politically important during the Constitutional Revolution – successfully invading Tehran in 1909. Just before that, in 1908, the first find of Middle East oil was in their tribal areas.

The exhibition brings together rarely seen early images exploring the Bakhtiari and the regions they inhabit, the families of the Khans and tribal life. It includes some of the personal image collections of the Bakhtiari Khans, as well as the British Petroleum archives.

Traditionally, twice a year, the nomadic Bakhtiari tribe spend weeks trekking kuch (their traditional migration) with their flocks and families from their winter to their summer pastures. This ancient way of life is now vanishing fast and may soon disappear forever. More and more Bakhtiari are leaving the mountains altogether; whilst those who do remain use trucks or tractors to transport their animals and the family belongings.

Objects of Instruction:
Treasures of the School of Oriental and African Studies

A small room behind the Edge of Arabia exhibition hosts the Foyle Collection, i.e. some of SOAS' treasures from their archives, presumably on a rolling basis.

To be honest, this was more interesting to me than the main exhibition - priceless and beautiful objects from Africa and Asia, albeit rather poorly labelled and explained.

British Political Cartoon Gallery

A surprise gallery on Store Street, and a pound entry which you get back if you buy anything in the shop. The gallery was divided up into several exhibitions, including Extremism in Cartoons, the British Political Cartoon of the Year, and of particular interest:

Tory Blues: A Cartoon History of the Conservative Party
21 October 2008 to 17 January 2009

To be honest my memories of pre-Thatcher Tory party are somewhat hazy, probably because I hadn't been born! Incidentally there's a Brown Review coming up soon, so watch their site!

Some things never change (click for larger):

By Sir Osbert Lancaster, 1961

Almost next door..
New London Architecture Building
Another wander-in exhibition, this about London, design, and Boris' London Plan, dealing with long-term strategy for the capital.

Jia Jia Wang at Alexandre Pollazzon.

Alexandre Pollazzon is a single room gallery just off Tottenham Court Road which I initially walked straight past, distracted by the adjacent Wenlock Arms! Jia Jia Wang was born in China but educated here, and in this exhibition draws on and blends Chinese traditional landscape painting with colourful computer games.

The pictures are simple but engaging - they'd be wonderful in a child's bedroom, leaving lots to the imagination but still bringing one to a fantastic dreamy colourful world on enormous canvasses.

30 Years of Solitude at Asia House

Asia House is an interesting place, sitting just off Portland Place on New Cavendish Street. It seems to be a sort of British Council in reverse - aiming to foster relations cultural and otherwise between Asia and the UK. It also has a nice little little eaterie, Café t, with nibbles a plenty.

The exhibition, 30 Years of Solitude, highlights a selection of work by female Iran artists who still live and work in Iran. The exhibition focuses on the feelings of anxiety, isolation and the sense of loss that Iranian society has experienced in the last 30 years.

Be Colourful, Shadi Ghadirian 2006

One exhibit was a video of a rural chap shrimp fishing. Half an hour of nothingness. Not especially interesting! The point was also made that some of the subjects of the photos were not identified as it is still illegal to show female head hair in public in Iran.

Abstracts, Maryam Kia, 2005

If anything I enjoyed this more than Edge of Arabia. Some of the works were beautiful, particularly the "Be Colourful" tetraptych.

Overall a marvellous weekend afternoon of art, despite the miserable weather, and all for a couple of pounds. Who says art has to be expensive? Just avoid those populist blockbusters, especially 11 quid for Annie Leibovitz at the NPG!

Monday, December 08, 2008

Social Observations in London, Pt 42

It is not the done thing to own a car in London, and consequently one ends up on public transport fairly often. Certain rules of course develop, and when they are not followed it’s rather bothersome for all. Talking to the person next to you on the bus, for instance, and this morning’s example:

The Seated Wriggler. Let me explain. In order to avoid having to ever speak to strangers on buses or trains, there is a system for indicating when one would like to stand up and pass those who are in your way in order to alight (for example when one is sitting by the window on a bus). The system is that shortly before wanting to move, one sits upright, folds one’s newspaper, picks up a bag, clears one's throat, or generally wriggles about in situ to indicate that one is about to require the adjacent person to shift.

This morning however, I was seated briefly next to a woman who was engaged in all of these activities, putting me on a high alert anticipating her move, without her actually having any intention of doing so. Indeed she was still happily seated on the bus after I had alighted. Her behaviour of course prevented me from concentrating on my Private Eye. Had I been on the bus for much longer I should have been forced to demand she either get off the bus or jolly well sit still! Very bad form!

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Awopbopaloobop and TeaSmith

Visited the Transition Gallery in Bethnal Green this afternoon to see the wonderfully-named Awopbopaloobop Exhibition. The idea is art inspired by music, so one tours the 60 or so paintings with an index which explains the lyrics which are behind the art. The quality was very variable, as were the prices - I was astounded at the high prices - from 100 to several thousand pounds for what was on the whole rather amateur. Still, there were a few gems there, although I certainly wouldn't pay the asking price for any of them! In fact.. if you can't beat 'em, I'm off to buy a few new brushes!! Awopbopaloobop is on 'til 21st December.

By Jane Wilmot

They call me her / They call me Jane / That's not my name.
From That's Not My Name, The Ting Tings.


TeaSmith is a tea shop in Spitalfields that I cribbed off Mei's blog. They're very friendly and they have a nice, albeit not overwhelming, selection of teas, mostly of the oriental variety, although I did spot the odd Assam and Darjeeling creeping in too. After browsing for a while, including examining their nice but pricey accessories, fancy Japanese tea-pots and thesuchlike, we settled down on the stools for a brew.

Pippi had Mandarin something, a green tea, and I had a darker Red Taiwan. Both very nice, especially with Matcha Shortbread, which created a curiously apple crumble-like taste in the mouth. As you drink the tea they brew the leaves two or even three times, which if you're being observant brings out subtle differences in the flavours. Recommended if you're in the area, for shopping or just a cuppa!