Photograph taken on the banks of the Thames at Dartford
Walking around the gardens of Eltham Palace it’s hard to believe that the High Street is only five minutes away. You could be forgiven for thinking you were in the middle of rural Kent. Entrance to the Palace by foot is via Tilt Yard Approach or by Court Road. Now both of these roads have some interesting brick walls. Yes, I do think brick walls can be interesting. They date back to the 16th Century and have that texture that only comes with age. In fact the wall between number 34 and 36 Court Yard is listed and is on English Heritage’s at risk register. You will also notice the Tiltyard gate which would have been the entrance to the jousting area of the palace.
The original palace dates back to Edward ll 1305. Later the young Henry Vlll grew up here. Much of the old palace is now a ruin except for the Great Hall with its stunning hammer beam ceiling. In the 1930s the ruin was bought by the wealthy Courtauld family who built the Art Deco house. The two very different types of architecture 20th Century and Medieval do work in harmony.
A tour of the interior will take you back to pre-war decadence. For me it is not so much the luxurious gold bathroom, stunning entrance but the home movies of Ginny and Stephen that make you realise how fabulously wealthy they were. The house has been used in several films, advertisements and videos so is very recognisable.
After the Second World War the house became the headquarters of the Army Education Corp up until 1992. It must have fallen into disrepair at some point as this old photograph of the Tiltyard gate reveals. I have also spoken to a neighbour who worked at the palace some years ago. She told me that one of the best fireplaces were taken from the palace and were bought by the Greyhound public house which is now the Yak and Yeti restaurant in the High Street. It is a 15th Century stone fireplace with a Tudor arch and carved spandrels.
Even though I have walked in south east London a lot I am always still rather surprised at the about of open space and woodlands there are. It makes me feel good. I recently set off from Oxleas Meadows following the Green Chain route to Lesnes Abbey. The signage is good and easy to follow. However, the access through Woodlands Farm is now locked and you need to follow the diversion signs. This will take you to East Wickham Open space. The signage in the Bexley parts of this walk is not as clear as they could be. I find the information boards at East Wickham confusing mainly because they don’t have the “you are here” arrow.
The route takes you close to Plumstead Cemetery and I took the opportunity to look around. This cemetery was built because the churchyard of the Woolwich Parish Church of St Mary Magdelen became full. The Victorian fashion for the gothic is reflected in the headstones and statues. Military links to Woolwich are evident and there are two recipients of the Victoria Cross buried here. Alfred Smith VC (1861-1932) who was just 24 when he was awarded the highest and most prestigious award for gallantry. His medal is on display at the Royal Artillery Museum – Firepower. Thomas Flawn (1857-1925) was 21 when he was awarded the VC.
The route then takes you through Bostall Woods. Many of the oak trees were planted by the navy. The oak would have been used in the nearby Royal Dockyards at Woolwich and Deptford. Now, many of the oaks are dead many still standing but some fallen. The area has become overgrown in parts by holly.
My final destination was Lesnes Abbey which overlooks the river at Thamesmead. The monks were the first to reclaim this marsh land and the abbey dates back to 1178. It was one of the first monasteries to close 1524. Henry Vlll ordered all monasteries to be dissolved and sold their land and buildings to his wealthy supporters. Lesnes Abbey was pulled down and was quarried for its stone and building materials.
I was despondent when I heard that charabanc was being removed from the Oxford English Dictionary. Charabanc or its more common form “chara” is so evocative. I came across this photograph, of an outing from the Lord Wolseley in Brockley, south east London. The pub is no longer there but was opposite The Wickham Arms pub. Although this was taken some time in the 1920s day trips organised by works, pubs or clubs continued up until the 1970s. “A charabanc trip that people went on from Liverpool to see Blackpool Lights” is how George Harrison described Magical Mystery Tour. It’s this tradition that shaped the coastal towns along the Thames. A fitting destination and well deserved treat for hard working Londoners.
During a recent visit to Margate I was pleased to hear that there has been a resurgence of the day trip. One of the shop keepers in the Old Town explained that the opening of the Turner Contemporary has increased the number of day and weekend visitors. Now I did expect that the Turner Contemporary would contain paintings by the artist. On my visit there wasn’t one, only some of his drawings about perspective. Apparently, there was an exhibition of his painting last autumn. Notwithstanding this the gallery is impressive but mainly because of its position on the beach.
Margate has fine Georgian architecture Hawley Square is particularly impressive. Sir Henry Hawley built elegant town houses for gentry in 1762. John Wesley preached his first sermon in the chapel that edges the square. Just off the square is the pub Quart in a Pint Pot which has a most unusual folly on the lower roof.
With the increased popularity of day trips leisure palaces were built. I parked close to the Lido which was originally Clifton Baths. There is a lot of hard surface mainly concrete and paving stones along this part of the front. Not a blade of grass to soften this cold and desolate area. On the other side of the bay is Dreamland, which has been the focus of a recent campaign. The pleasure park looked destined to become yet another block of flats but after a long campaign, supported by the council, it is awaiting a new purpose in the regeneration of the town.
Margate was one of the twelve towns to receive funding from Mary Portas’ High Street Review. Figures released through a Freedom of Information request in December 2012 revealed that only £111.47 of the £100,000 had been spent. It spent less than all the other schemes purchasing stationery and fees to the Land Registry. I’m afraid the lack of investment showed on the forsaken High Street. In contrast the shops and galleries in the Old Town were vibrant, unique and busy. There is a good range of antique, craft and vintage clothes shops. Qing works with designers from Beijing and has some interesting furniture and soft furnishings. The Pie Factory is the centre for local artists. Margate is in transition with some very interesting developments. Would I visit again? Most definitely yes.
Some accounts of The Peasants Revolt 1381 state that Wat Tyler came from Essex others Kent. There is a road in Blackheath named after him as it was there that the rebels set up camp before entering London, In 2009 Basildon named a park after him. It is on the site of an old explosive factory, built 1891 which was partly owned by Alfred Nobel. Explosive factories were in isolated areas so it was located next to Timberman’s Creek a tributary of the Thames. The area has been used more recently as a land fill site. The RSPB has a Visitor Centre and Discovery Zone in the park which is the gateway to their South Essex Marshes reserves.
The land was bought from the Ministry of Defence in 1969 and was opened to the public in the 1980s. The site is still in the process of being reclaimed. Excavated soil from the Olympics was used to recontour the site. Areas that were used for landfill are being reclaimed and are due to open in 2016. It is interesting to see how the industrial landscape is reverting to original marshland. The Marina is still used for mooring and there are a couple of rusty boats there as well. From here you get good views over to Thames Gateway and the giant cranes.
Before visiting I looked on the park’s website and was interested that some traditional Essex cottages had been relocated into the park. I was expecting something like Beamish, the living museum of the North East. I was wrong. Yes some buildings have been relocated around a “village green” but their conservation is very poor. Galvanized hinges, posidrive screws and plastic guttering were some of the materials used on buildings dating back to the 17th century: a travesty.
The park lacks a clear focus. There is very little on Wat Tyler just a couple of information boards in the visitor centre. The exhibits were generally poor and uninspiring. There are the remnants of the explosive factory and its buildings but they have not been developed into a coherent exhibition. The narrow gauge railway track used to unload and load cargo from the wharves has been transformed into a children’s Thomas the Tank engine ride. Strange structures appear haphazardly, for example, a large metal pink object that on closer examination is meant to be an insect. The park is neither an open air museum nor an amusement park. Currently, it’s trying to do both and doing them both badly.
Whilst visiting Essex recently I did a bit of a detour and visited Mersea Island. The purpose of my visit was really to try out The Company Shed. It has had so many rave reviews and reportedly its one of Jamie Oliver’s favourite places. Food this good justified the additional miles. I knew that it was rustic and you needed to take drink and bread: so I did go prepared. Well, I thought I had.
The shed is on the beach at West Mersea and there are notices outside warning you about the queues. They must be legendary has nearly all the reviews mention them. I visited mid-week and as predicted there was a queue. As we were just a group of two they put us on the end of a large table. A party of students shared the table and were very well prepared with salad, bread, sauces and drinks. I looked around and most other diners had brought large picnic baskets or cooler boxes. Our small portion of bread and bottle of mineral water looked meagre in comparison.
Most reviews had raved about the sea food platter. When Jay Rayner had reviewed it the cost was £8.50 it is now £11.50 still not badly priced for half a crab, smoked salmon, peeled and shell on prawns, one green lip mussel and a crevette. All the reviews waxed on about the freshness of the sea food. There was a filtration tank in the dining area holding crabs so they really must be fresh.
The picnic and sharing approach to dining certainly gives a great atmosphere. The people on the table next to us helpfully told us that we really must come early, they had been there since breakfast. The students on our table must have felt slightly sorry for us and our meagre accompaniments as they offered us some of their salad and potatoes. It is a unique place with absolutely no frills.
So how was the food? Well, I’m slightly embarrassed to say this but it was not that good. It certainly wasn’t that fresh. The wetness of the prawns made them tasteless as only frozen ones can be. The crab was fresh but most of the other ingredients were readily available from any supermarket and not local. Is it that my taste buds are so out of tune with renowned restaurant reviewers and chefs? Have standards slipped? Or is it just a case of emperor’s new clothes?