Thursday 31 January 2019

Hackney - via Droitwich

We had been invited to the retirement 'do'; for some long standing friends from our days in Milton Keynes. Elizabeth had been the URC minister in the city centre team whilst we were there and we have kept in touch sine. Although we have seen her and husband Peter a couple of times since, we have continued to exchange updates on our lives via the obligatory Christmas emails newsletters.

After serving as a Moderator for some time, Elizabeth opted to step back from this role about ten years ago in order to take a half time post which she wanted to combine with an opportunity to undertake research for a PhD. This is how she ended her ministry in Hackney.

At one period of history, when Nonconformists and Dissenters were banned from preaching within five miles of any large town, Hackney was still rural and just outside that limit from the City of London. Hence it became a particular centre for adherents to such forms of faith and many churches were built near here.

These days we do look for opportunities to do several things on the back of journeys out of Cornwall, so we drove up last Wednesday (23rd) to stay a couple of nights on the boat in the marina at Droitwich. The journey was uneventful and traffic quite light with reasonable weather. Snow and ice only became a threat the following week.

For once we found the boat unaffected by a lack of attention for three weeks and we quickly established a fire in the stove, filled up with water and turned the central heating from 'holiday/frost' mode to normal temperature levels.

The next day was pretty laid back - time for reading, we thought! We collected the train tickets we had booked online before leaving home and established that it would be marginally cheaper to use a taxi from the marina to the station than to leave the car in the nearby car park.

On Friday our train was not until lunch time (in order to get the best price!). Fortunately we booked the taxi with an extra five minutes to spare: just as Mike was finally locking the main cabin door the key snapped off leaving part of it in the lock. However, he was able to go back inside, lock the door with the turn knob and then exit from the other end, locking that door (carefully!) behind him. Fixing the broken lock would just have to wait.

The journey to Birmingham was easy and we soon found the train to Euston and our booked seats. Just as we were due to leave, an announcement gave us the information that there would be some delay due to trespassers on the line near Rugby. It was well over half and hour before we could depart and we ran even later as the network sought to catch up with the various missed slots on a busy line.

However, we were not pressed for time. Once at Euston we dived down onto the Victoria line for a couple of stops to Highbury and Islington where we transferred to the Overground line to Hackney. The Travelodge which we had been advised to use was just a couple of minutes from the station.

After settling into our room we went for a wander down Mare Street, the main road through the centre of Hackney. In the library, next to the Town Hall, is a small local museum with very well presented displays and we learnt quite a lot about how Hackney developed from a rural retreat for the very wealthy to a busy, vibrant and multi-cultural community today. In the recent past the borough had become quite a run down area but in the very recent time it is now on a marked upward trend and property prices in the estate agent windows are almost stratospheric!

We initially planned to find a suitable eating place, perhaps one of several Vietnamese restaurants, but then spotted the Hackney Picturehouse multi screen cinema. We bought tickets for the 18:20 showing of Mary Queen of Scots but there was then time to pop to a nearby supermarket to buy some salad and related materials to have as a meal in our room later one.

The film was a very effective portrayal of how Mary came to  be queen but then quickly fall out of favour, ending up a prisoner of Elizabeth in England. However we thought that it failed to be clear why it was that Elizabeth changed her original promise to keep Mary safe, albeit confined to a succession of cold and damp castles. The film provided an additional perspective on the story which Mike is currently reading, the latest Ken Follett doorstop of a book which is set in this period, although it has the bitter conflict between Catholic and Protestant forces as its main focus.

The retirement celebrations were not due to start until late afternoon so, following a lateish start to the day, we took a further look around the local area. In particular we went up Narrowway (a pedestrianised part of the old Mare Street) and then to St John's Hackney church and churchyard. An earlier Town Hall is now part of the Coral betting empire - a 1930's Art Deco building further down Mare Street is now the administrative base for the borough.

The medieval church was built close to Mare Street with quite a substantial piece of land around it. In the later part of the 18C, London began to expand out in the North Easterly direction with the result that the population of Hackney grew rapidly. Previously it had been popular with the very wealthy who built country houses here but now it was becoming a dense residential area, many of the streets were comparatively expensive.

The demand for seats in the old church at Sunday services began to outstrip its capacity (expanded tom 1000) and a decision was taken to build a completely new one on land adjacent to the grounds of the old one.  A prominent architect was engaged with the brief to design for a capacity of 3000. However, he eventually advised a somewhat smaller space for 2000, whether for cost reasons or because of the acoustics is unclear but the new building opened in 1797. A year later, most of the old church was demolished, leaving just the tower with its bells. At a later date, the tower was due to be removed as well but the money available was insufficient to pay a local contractor so it remains today.

The new church has become a vibrant centre for the local community and beyond, being used during the week for many activities including large concerts. Once again it became in need of updating and at present it is undergoing a very expensive refurbishment and improvement, due to re-open this autumn.

Both the old and the new churchyard gradually filled up and they were both declared full in 1859. In 1881 a new act of parliament enabled such churchyards to be cleared with the headstones moved to the boundary walls - here they are stacked in up to four layers. As was fashionable at the time, the wealthier families constructed huge vault tombs and these have also been moved and protected by iron railings.

One example, of many, is the Loddiges family tomb. Several members of the family are remembered by inscriptions on all sides. Conrad Loddiges, from a family of leading nurserymen in Hackney, introduced wisteria to the country from Europe as well as the common rhododendron. His son built what was perhaps at the time the largest hothouse in the world. It may even have been the inspiration for Crystal Palace.

In the Walled Garden part of the churchyard is the Lidice Memorial, originally installed to remember the atrocious bombing and destruction of the Czechoslovakian village in World War 2.

Sadly, many of the 'ordinary' tombstones are now illegible as the urban atmosphere of 19th and 20th century domestic and industrial pollution have eaten away at the softer sandstone from which most were made. The tombs seem generally to have survived better.

Whilst Christine was buying some clothes in M&S, Mike took a walk to Sutton Place, a terrace of 16 upmarket Georgian houses. At present most seem to be empty so perhaps a developer is buying them up with the intention of making them even more expensive.

At the far end is Sutton House, built in Tudor times by Sir Ralph Sadlier who, as one of Henry the Eighth's principal civil servants, became perhaps the wealthiest commoner in the country. It is now owned by the national trust but is not generally open to visitors.

At one entrance to the churchyard is a plaque to Blind Fred - a sunny soul. Born 1870 he was blind from birth and in later years made a small income from selling matches and bootlaces here. He was well known for his cheery disposition, unlike the less welcome beggars who simply held out demanding hands.

After discovering that Christine need a little more time in M&S (she was ultimately successful) Mike followed a sign to a new micro brewery. This turned out to be housed in a couple of London's famous railway arches. It only opened recently and was supported by the nearby church who make use of its bar space for some of its community outreach.

But it was the row of arches themselves that most intrigued Mike as it is just a short length, ending abruptly with a bright mural. Why did it not continue and where did the trains go? Later research revealed that originally Hackney Station was built to the east of Mare Street just in front of this mural. early OS maps show a track running up to an extra platform. Twenty years after opening, the station was moved a short distance to the opposite side of Mare Street, leaving the arches as a silent reminder of the original (of which nothing else remains). In 1945 the line was closed to passenger traffic but the growing demand for better public transport led to the re-opening of the line in the 1980's, becoming part of London Overground. A new station was built - the old building, now a night club, was thought too dingy by the planners - the replacement can hardly be said to have any architectural merit whatsoever, being little more than platforms and a few shelters with a flimsy lift and footbridge

In the afternoon we changed and prepared for the retirement 'do' which was about 15 minutes walk away in Lower Clapton part of Hackney. Many previous colleagues in the URC came to pay tribute to Elizabeth's work in a service that was well attended with a large contingent from Milton Keynes. This was, for us, an added bonus as most were people we knew from our time there and whom we have not seen for some years.

The Round Chapel was a key non-conformist chapel that was opened in 1871, replacing older chapels that too had become too small for the expanding congregations. More recently it fell into disrepair and was taken over in 1991 by the Hackney Historic Buildings Trust that also manages the remaining tower (St Augustine's) from the former St John's church.

The URC congregation retained the former school rooms, built to one side of the Round Chapel both for worship and for a range of community activities. After the celebration service and speeches, there was a dinner, provided by the local people.

The next day, Sunday, we opted to return to Clapton Park for the morning service in the URC church. (A bright morning allowed a better photo of the old town hall and St Augustine's tower) A few of the visitors from the previous day were also there although most had had to return home the previous evening. It was a joyous, yet sometimes thoughtful,  experience with all ages taking part and afterwards there was a light lunch to which we invited to stay.

Afterwards we walked back to the hotel where Christine quickly dropped off for a lengthy afternoon nap! Mike, however, walked around the corner to the St Augustine's Tower. This is only open on the last Sunday of each month when volunteers from the trust open it up and provide explanations and other information.

The climb to the top is 135 steps (136 if you include a half starting step!) up a spiral staircase that gradually narrows towards the final stage before visitors almost tumble out onto the roof (the exit door is very low) Fortunately, there are three intermediate floors so there is time (and excuse) to stop to regain one's breath. The first floor has a number of interesting information panels, covering not only the history of the church but also the development of the area and its distinctive social culture.

On the next floor is the 16th or early 17th century clock mechanism - its maker is now unknown. This is still operational and recently an automatic winding mechanism has been installed as it is kinder to the mechanism than manual winding - it may even be also kinder to the winders!

Clock has a wire to connect to the one remaining bell on the next floor. Visitors can also chime the bell if they wish, confusing people around who have perhaps expected that its sound denotes a quarter hour.(Well, it confused Mike earlier before he made his visit!)

Finally visitors reach the roof where there is a good view of the surrounding area. On the skyline in one direction are the many towers of the Canary Wharf developments and in the other those around the Olympic Park. The ArcelorMittal Orbit (a landmark feature of the 2012 Olympic Games) can just be seen.By now it was somewhat windy and, with the sun low in the sky, turning decidedly chilly so Mike did not hang about too much even if the Trust volunteer proved both chatty and informative.

One of the reasons for staying over a further night and not returning to the boat until Monday was that we had arranged with grand daughter Ellie, who is a student at Queen Mary University nearby, to have a meal at Lardo, a restaurant just off Mare Street. Ellie came to the hotel and we walked the few minutes to the restaurant for our table booked at 7. We not only had a tasty meal but a good chance to catch up with Ellie.

Our return train on Monday morning was not until mid day but we left the hotel in good time - Mike went out earlier to pick up some lunch sandwiches and wraps from the nearby Tesco - and made our was to Euston via the London Overground and Underground as before. We had time for a cup of coffee before our train to Birmingham was announced.

This time, all ran to schedule and, once on the train to Droitwich, we booked a taxi to meet us at the station. As soon as we were back at the boat we phoned a local locksmith who agreed to come out later. In fact he was much earlier than his first estimate as his previous job turned out simpler than expected. Just as well as removing the broken part of the key was not easy. The shape of the key has a weak point, just beyond the first pin which was able, as a result, to pop up and block the rest from being pulled out. In the end he managed to free it and then to cut a replacement key. We were pleasantly surprised by his very reasonable charge for doing this.

Tuesday morning we had arranged to meet a possible solar panel installer. He arrived at 10 as planned and we had a good discussion and inspection to decide what might be most appropriate for our needs. We particularly want to have a semi flexible surface mounted system so as not to interfere with the use of the roof when working through locks and not to catch the centre line mooring rope (the ladder rack is bad enough) This type of installation dos require fine weather as the surface has to be bone dry to prevent trapping moisture under the panels which could quickly lift the paintwork and allow it to rust undetected. Hopefully we will have something before he start of the cruising season.

The weather in the afternoon was not great so it was again largely a reading time!

We now have several pieces of work planned over the next couple of months. Mid February the engine service is booked and then in March we are due to have the boat pulled out for blacking by the marina. As they only do the paint up to the rubbing strake, we are trying to arrange a separate painter to re-do the rest of the hull up to the gunnel, mainly as a cosmetic improvement.We know that within a day or so out cruising and once more the signs of use will be evident. A further engineer has also agreed to inspect the prop when the boat is out of the water as we believe that it has suffered a bit from underwater obstructions - not much we can do about them, just the luck of the draw.

We packed the car on Wednesday morning - it had been very cold overnight but fortunately the snow and ice which had fallen in some parts of the country had not reached Droitwich nor on our route home. In fact, the journey was very quiet with, for a motorway, very little traffic on the move, even around the usual hotspots like Bristol and the M4 interchange.

Monday 7 January 2019

Now Back Home

With Christine still suffering from her cold we were not able to do too much today although Mike went to the supermarket and also completed the photos of one of the churchyards.

Despite suffering, Christine did manage her usual clean through and Mike removed most of the tar stain that had collected at the base of the chimney. It is not possible to remove it completely but best to keep on top of it.

Sunday morning, Mike went to St Peter's church for the morning worship service which was well attended. By the time he returned to the boat, Christine had completed the last of the packing.

Mike loaded up the car and then went through the usual final disposals and emptying of the water tank. Another quick clean around the chimney whilst packing it away and then we closed down all systems before setting of on the journey homeward.

The motorway was remarkably quiet with no delays at all so that we were back by half past three, still daylight.

Friday 4 January 2019

Tempus Fugit

Not sure where the two days, Thursday and Friday, have gone! Thursday was quiet as we took time to recover from the four hours of driving the day before and by today, Christine awoke to find that she has developed quite a nasty cold which has left her feeling pretty listless.

We did manage a short trip out to the shops for a few items but quickly returned! The weather has turned very much colder since the New Year with overnight freezing conditions and the day time temperatures well down in single figures.

Mike did manage a couple of expeditions to St Peter's churchyard to take more pictures which will be processed and put up on the website after we return home.

We will have to raise our game a little, looking forward as we plan to return home on Sunday with a fairly busy time ahead, including another trip up to London at the end of the month, which may involve a diversion via the boat. So we will at least have to clean and pack up on Saturday as well as make another short trip to the supermarket.

There seem to be quite a few people staying aboard their boats in the marina at the moment but most restrict their social interaction to the routine dog walk around the perimeter path!

Wednesday 2 January 2019

Another trip to Windsor

There is not that much to write about for today - and we are not expecting much for the rest of this trip either, other than a chance to read and prepare for quite a busy couple of months into the first part of the year.

Back to today: a very slow start but a chance for the girls to make sure that they were packed and ready to leave after lunch. Jess is back to school on the 3rd so we had to return them both to Windsor today. However, with both parents it was a work day so we had agreed to get there by 4 o'clock which would allow Adrian plenty of time to make sure his office was back in functioning order after the break. Joanna was not expected back until early evening as she had plenty to catch up on.

We managed to find time in the morning for the usual chores but with the temperature having fallen to below freezing over night it meant everything was cold to touch. The hosepipe we leave on the roof when we are in a marina, especially when the tap is not at the end of the pontoon,  had managed to trap enough water in it (which is why we normally flush it through quite fully before filling the tank) had become solid. This meant having to lay out the second flexible hose to connect tap to tank. In the process Mike manage to spray very cold water over himself! However, with help from Alice and Jess, now working to a bit of a routine, we completed all the tasks in plenty of time for lunch.

First, however, Mike and Jess took the car into town to the Sainsbury Local and filling station so that we did not have to start off in the wrong direction this afternoon. As well as filling the car we picked up a paper and a little more bread for lunch.

It takes just on two hours to drive to Windsor so we were on the road a couple of minutes after 2. The journey was very uneventful but, in the rapidly disappearing twilight, driving on a reasonably busy motorway does take concentration! Arrival was only a few minutes over the scheduled time, mainly because there was a very slow section late in the trip.

After a brief chat and a chance for a mug of tea to refresh ourselves, it was back to the car and to retrace our steps (or tyre rotations) back to the boat, arriving just before 7.

Tuesday 1 January 2019

A Christmas Carol

Yesterday's blog only took us as far as the return to the boat, in time to carry out usual chores and prepare the evening meal. Of course, that was not the end of the day as this was New Year's Eve and after perhaps 5 or 6 years celebrating the festivity on the boat (one year in a cottage whilst we waited for Alchemy to be finished), Alice and Jess now have their tradition! (Jess says it is not a tradition but . . . )

The main element is to watch some of the comedy television before Jools Holland turns up with his amazingly eclectic selection of musical performances. This year was no exception and whilst most are close to the host's Rhythm and Blues background, there is a much wider choice which this time included Michael Buble.

After hearing the guests on the show counting down to the midnight hour (tricky for the producers to coordinate as the show is actually recorded earlier in the month, we understand) it was back over to BBC 1 for the fireworks at the London Eye. Even though we were watching them on a small screen the display was just amazing, only made possible by the use of very complex electronics. Because they were using the large structure to full effect. some fireworks not only went upwards but others downwards -  in fact in a ring towards the centre of the Eye. We were convinced that the design has moved on considerably even from last year's spectacular. No wonder the tickets to see the show live were sold out some time back.

After a toast to each other and to the New Year and a little more music we gradually wended our way to bed - reluctantly!

Even more reluctant was next morning and, apart from a few household chores, little was really on the agenda until lunchtime. In fact, none of us made much show of life until it was time to get ready to drive over to Stratford.

It is only just over half an hour but we planned not only the theatre visit (tickets were booked way back in the summer) but also a meal out beforehand. The first task on arrival was to find a suitable car park. After being put off initially by the very high charges on the tariff board at the main car park by the shops we looked for another but, with it seeming to be a longer walk and just the same charges as the first we returned to the first one.

Luckily we went immediately to check out an eating place as the first one which Christine and Alice had used earlier in the year when they came to see Macbeth had no room for us. So we now had to look around - one which had been recommended was unfortunately shut this evening. In the end we took went into Ask Italian which did have spare tables although by the time we had ordered our food there were very few left! (Jess reports that the upper floor was entirely empty as it was not being used today)

(One picture included Christine but she has censored it)

Pasta dishes were ordered by three of us whilst Jess opted for a gigantic pizza which eventually disappeared in its entirety. There was no time for a pud but we were promised an ice cream in the interval at the theatre. Overall, the reaction to the meal was very positive!

We walked to the theatre, stopping briefly to buy a belated newspaper from Sainsbury. Along the way we admired the excellent street illuminations (not that a camera phone does them justice).

We arrived at the theatre and found the way to our seats. Two of us were familiar with the inside but for Mike and Jess it was a new experience. We were seated on the middle level (Circle) and in the front row to one side. We managed a quick shot (not very good) before turning off our phones just in case they were tempted to ring during the performance! The performance takes place principally on the large open thrust stage so that everyone can see. We were quite early - time to read the programme properly - but only a very small number of single seats were left empty by the time the first actors came onto the stage (just as well we booked early - even then there was no choice of which day we went)

The production was A Christmas Carol in which Charles Dickens and his friend discuss the circumstances in which the author was persuaded to tackle the very difficult political issues of child and family poverty in a time of considerable change and not a little personal greed.

Although the story was intertwined with the personal story of Dickens, whose own father spent time in a debtors prison when the writer was about 12, most of the action followed the famous story with the ghosts of the past, the present and the future all leading Scrooge from a complete lack of sympathy for the plight of his clerk and his family, including the sick and disabled Tiny Tim, to a greater understanding.

This is a performance with very high production values. Much of the time there were around 26 performers on stage and in the ensemble pieces the choreography was very complex. There was a small musical band to provide a little background music (but carefully chosen for when it was appropriate, not scattered around like unwanted confetti) and some singing from the cast, but the main emphasis was on the acting and the action. The props were amazing and very detailed - not many stage productions bother to make sure that a character actually has coins in pocket to hand over to someone else, instead of just pretending. It is so often the small things that help to bring stage action to life and a lot of time in design and rehearsal must have been spent to think through so much detail.

Of course, by the end, Scrooge had been redeemed but at some no little personal cost along the way, not just to his purse, but to his emotions as well. "You can only see if first you feel" was a theme throughout the script - there were many echoes of the current political agenda, especially how (or even whether) to tackle the serious inequalities in society (all the more poignant as we passed several people sleeping rough in Stratford, including just outside the theatre).

In the interval we had our promised ice cream - whilst not quite up to the standard of Churchfield, it was nevertheless distinctly above the norm at theatres with a significant choice of flavours.

Back for the second part and we continued to be enthralled by the production which built to its eventual climax. However, the script does not allow the watchers to wallow in good-feel at the end as, even though Scrooge dished out money fro the Cratchitt family, contributed to a new trust fund to help families in trouble as well as cancelling the debts of some of his poorest clients, we were not allowed to forget that many of the wider problems still remained. But after the main closing applause there was a short but complex dance routine which sent us all away into the night with some hope of a better future - but only if we all play our parts.

The drive back, albeit in the dark, was quite smooth (thanks to Sat Nav even if we did make one small mis-turn) and we were back on the boat once more.