Vichy Spa Town

It seemed like this was going to be a “Where were you when Kennedy got assassinated” moment by the coverage on French TV. It took some concentration and searching my lost French vocabulary to understand all that this was a major political crisis. Hollande had dissolved the government to stop a mutiny among ministers who had been openly critical of his economic policy. I was staying in a hotel in Vichy and my fellow residents were watching avidly as they ate their breakfast. It became apparent that their real concern was that this could precipitate a boost for the far right in the 2017 elections.


The town has two main claims to fame; its water and its collaboration with the Nazis in the 2nd World War. The quiet spa town of Vichy was chosen to be the provisional capital of Marshal Petain’s Etat Francais (French State) ,in the unoccupied part of France, because of its central location and its abundance of hotels to for ministers use.


The Vichy Government replaced the principles of the Republic; Freedom, Equality and Fraternity with a return to nationalistic values. There are few, if any, memorials to this dark period of the town’s history. However, some grand and decorative buildings are a testament to its heyday as a spa town in the mid C19th.


Visits of Napoleon lll prompted major redevelopments and construction new gardens, boulevards and pavilions. The pavilions emanate from the central spa, where the five varieties of water can be tasted, and coil round the gardens. Its difficult to stroll through them now and not have an image of the past promenaders. It is a town of faded elegance with some fine buildings but far too many run down or even abandoned.


Like many French towns the church steeple still dominates the skyline but this is quite a contrast to the rest of the town’s architecture. The church is built in reinforced concrete which does little to instill any sense of awe or spirituality. It was built in 1931 and is described in the church’s own literature as a “unique example of art deco”. It’s certainly unique but definitely not fine. Inside it is dark and gloomy and made me reflect on a recent quote from Pope Francis,

“For too many Christians every day is Lent”.

Yes,this is an ideal church for this group.

Lovelace Green

Lovelace Green

I doubt if there are many places that have such a lyrical place name as Lovelace Green. It is a wonderful space and although it sounds as though it should be in a rural idyll it’s in Eltham, South East London. It’s one of the open spaces in the Progress Estate, stumble into this place and you are transported into the countryside.

Lovelace Green Progress Estate

It’s a village green surrounded by individually designed homes. Look up and all you see is sky and trees no high rise buildings overshadowing. This is a testament to everything Ebeneezer Howard set out to achieve in the Garden City Movement. As he sets out in Garden Cities of Tomorrow 1902:

“ ..a Garden City that, as it grows, the free gifts of Nature- fresh air, sunlight, breathing room and playing room- shall be still retained in all needed abundance”

The name of the place is intriguing.

Lovelace Green Progress Estate

The roads on the estate are named after munitions production such as Congreve and Shrapnel. Others named after managers at the Royal Arsenal; Moira, Ross and Downman. Lovelace Green, however, is named after the 17th Century poet Richard Lovelace. If you google him it is likely to say that he was born in Woolwich or Holland. However, the more authoritative biographies confirm his South East London credentials.

Lovelace Green Progress Estate

Richard Lovelace a Cavalier fought for Charles I during the English Civil War. He was imprisoned twice during this period being finally released when Charles was executed. His story is one of great personal loss. He lost his personal fortune and the love of his life Lucy Sacheverell. She was betrothed to Lovelace but believing him to be dead, during his imprisonment, married another suitor.

Lucy Sacheverell is featured in many of Lovelace’s poems and is generally identified with Althea in his poem To Althea from Prison:

When love with unconfinèd wings
Hovers within my gates;
And my divine Althea brings
To whisper at the grates;
When I lye tangled in her haire,
And fetter’d to her eye,
The birds, that wanton in the aire,
Know no such libertie.

When flowing cups run swiftly round
With no allaying Thames,
Our carelesse heads with roses bound,
Our hearts with loyal flames;
When thirsty griefe in wine we steepe,
When healths and draughts go free,
Fishes, that tipple in the deepe,
Know no such libertie.

When (like committed linnets) I
With shriller throat shall sing
The sweetnes, mercy, majesty,
And glories of my King.
When I shall voyce aloud, how good
He is, how great should be,
Inlargèd winds, that curle the flood,
Know no such libertie.

Stone walls doe not a prison make,
Nor iron bars a cage;
Mindes innocent and quiet take
That for an hermitage;
If I have freedome in my love,
And in my soule am free,
Angels alone that soar above
Enjoy such libertie.

“Stone walls doe not a prison make” the much-quoted line seems a fitting ideal for a place founded on the Garden City movement.

Thames Barrier gates rising

Walking along the Thames Path looking up at the ubiquitous luxury flats rising out of its banks, you could be lulled into a false sense that this is an ideal residential area. The Thames is full of dangers, just think back to last winter’s storms. The Thames rose to its highest levels in 60 years, in some parts. The Thames Barrier closed frequently to keep London safe. Since the beginning of this year it has closed an unprecedented 40 times, close to its recommended 50 annual closures. The Environment Agency plans to keep the Barrier operational until the 2070s but many are now questioning if this needs to be revised because of global climate changes.

It’s not just the risk of flooding, it’s a grim fact that on average one dead body a week is found somewhere along the 213 miles of the Thames. It’s also a fact that two bodies can go into the Thames at the same spot and they will end up in different places. It depends on the size of the person, what they had eaten and what they were wearing. The temperature of the water and what is on the river banks are also determinants. There are some spots that bodies are more likely to emerge particularly bends in the river such as around the Isle of Dogs which can be a trapping point for bodies in the river. The Poplar Coroner’s court still deals with numbers of river death inquests. A combined mortuary and coroner’s court was erected in Poplar 1893 to deal with river deaths.

Charlton Cemetery

Charlton Cemetery

Further downstream Charlton was an area where a large number of bodies emerged. In 1866 a Deadhouse, or mortuary, was erected in Charlton Cemetery for the purpose of depositing bodies found drowned in the Thames. The cemetery dates back to 1857 and the two original chapels still remain although one is now a store room but the mortuary is no longer there.

London's new East Village

London’s new East Village

As a place to live the Thames particularly west of London has always been popular for residential development. Now that desire for riverside dwelling is spreading east. There is something about living near the river that just draws people in: the views, the light and now the investment value but it does have its drawbacks.

Rochester Castle

How many pigs did it take to bring the wall down at Rochester Castle? Looking at the thick stone walls you may well think thousands. You may well thin how can a pig bring a wall down? During a siege 1215, led by King John, against rebellious barons pit props were used to shore up the keep when it was being pounded by siege engines. King John ordered that the props were to be set alight and they used the fat from forty pigs. This brought one of the corners crashing down. It was rebuilt later but the damaged area is still visible.

Rochester Castle

The Castle dates back to 1066 was originally a timber keep but was rebuilt of stone in the early C12th. It is strategically placed along the London Road and a crossing point on the River Medway.

Rochester Castle

It’s a massive stone structure used to protect from invaders coming up the Medway. Consisting of three floors and a basement, it stands 113 feet high. The floors no longer exist but you can still see the insets where the immense timbers rested. How did they get them up three floors? You can’t fail to be impressed with medieval engineering.

Rochester Castle

From the top of the tower you still get great views that remind you of the town’s proud history. Daniel Defoe visited in the 1720s this is what he wrote about the town:

“There is little remarkable in Rochester, except the ruins of a very old castle, and an ancient but not extraordinary cathedral: but the river, and its appendices are the most considerable of the kind in the world.”

The contours of the valley, the estuary and the North Downs are still an exceptional sight; perhaps no longer world class. Closer to the castle are the roof tops of the many Georgian buildings with beautiful patinas and decorative brick work and of course its majestic neighbour The Cathedral.

View from Rochester Castle

The view of the riverscape is about to change. Regeneration is about to begin, a new development Rochester Riverside my heart sinks not more luxury tall buildings that only foreign investors can afford.

View of the Cathedral from Rochester Castle

However, this scheme looks more promising. It could even be unique; low to mid rise buildings along the riverside. The buildings will vary in height from one to eight storeys and vista corridors are planned so that the heritage views are protected. They are leaving one large blue crane as a nod to the industrial past of the town.
Rochester Castle


Daniel Defoe – A tour thro’ the whole island of Great Britain, divided into circuits or journies. 1724-28

Dartford Waitrose closure

Dartford may well thrive again but a walk through the historic market town leaves the distinct impression that the decline is terminal. Arriving by train one of the first sights is the abandoned Waitrose supermarket, continue through the Orchard shopping centre where there appears to be more vacant than occupied shop units. It’s a ghost town with little footfall to boost sales for those shops still clinging on.

Orchard Shopping Mall Dartford

Lowfield Street is awaiting demolition. Notices on the hoardings all along the street proclaim to residents and visitors that “it’s been worth the wait” and “not long to wait”.

Lowfield Street Dartford

Well the townspeople of Dartford have been waiting eleven years for this planning scheme to come to fruition. A new Tesco is coming to town bringing jobs and affordable homes. It’s good to know that there will be new jobs for the many retail staff who have recently lost their jobs, but is this a net gain?

Lowfield Street Dartford

Most historic market towns celebrate their heritage and try to preserve their fine buildings. Now, not all market towns can be preserved in aspic like Stamford in Lincolnshire but most find a way of balancing new development with the old. The buddleia growing out of the decorative brickwork of the remaining heritage buildings doesn’t fill you with confidence about their preservation.

Lowfield Street Dartford

Can Tesco regenerate the town? At the turn of the millenium that may have looked like a possiblity but since then Tesco has been losing market share, austerity kicked in and people have changed their shopping habits. Architecturally it will do nothing to make the place worth visiting. Its neighbour upstream at Woolwich has been shortlisted for the carbuncle prize. The former chair of Planning at the Royal Borough of Greenwich, Alex Grant, has stated that it’s a flawed project; a blight on the regeneration of the town and he regrets his role in its progeny. Oh dear it doesn’t bode well for Dartford.

Last Trams in Woolwich

Somewhere in Penhall Road Charlton there is a small replica of a London tramcar buried. A sign of remembrance for these much loved vehicles part of the London street scene since 1861. Rather than phasing out trams there was a final date – Last Tram Week 2nd July 1952. Tramway abandonment became a common phrase at the time as one Eltham resident explained to the Kentish Independent:

“In my opinion tramway abandonment is not a good policy, for no other vehicle can really replace a tram.”

He was not alone in this view, The Light Railway Transport League (formed 1939) proposed the retention of the London Tramway System modernising the transit system and better maintenance of the tramlines. The London Transport Executive refused to listen to the proposals and the tramway system was closed in its entirety. South East London would have been a very different place if the League’s proposals were accepted. The No 40 tramway ran from Plumstead Common to The Embankment and the No 46 from General Gordon Square to Cannon Street: commuter heaven. Woolwich would wait another fifty five years before they had a replacement rapid rail transit system.

Tram in Plumstead

Trams were to be replaced by buses which were thought to be more flexible and had the much lauded “internal combustion engine” as in 1952 no one had remotely thought of Peak Oil.
Londoners, were clearly fond of the trams. Thousands of people made sentimental last journeys collecting the last tickets as souvenirs. A crowd of 10-15,000 people waited at New Cross to see the last No 40 arrive at 12.29. A tram from Abbey Wood stopped at the Maybloom Club for a presentation to the driver and the conductor. The club had an extension until midnight and then the band turned out to play on the tram as it made its way to the breakers yard in Charlton. The Pearly Kings, not much seen on the streets of London now, were in on the act as well. They were busy in pubs and cafes across London making a “Farewell to the Trams” collection.


Whilst looking through some archival material about Charlton I came across this strange account of the Husbands’ Hostel in Picture Post December 1940. It did strike me as bizarre, a home for men left alone when their wives and children had been evacuated. It was opened by two sisters Mrs Davie and Nurse Conway who thought of the idea whilst sheltering from an air raid. Men and boys who were in reserve occupations needed practical support. They came up with the idea of providing board and lodgings for them. John West, a docker, was there with his 13 year old son who was a tea boy on the docks. Cyril Chambers a munitions worker at the Royal Arsenal moved into the home when his wife and baby were evacuated to Northampton.

The home catered for 24 men and was in a Large Georgian House 233 Charlton Lane. Close to Woolwich it was ideal for munitions workers and dockers who would walk through the foot tunnel. The house is no longer there.

John Davis, a rigger of heavy tackle on the docks described his journey into the home:

“When my missus went, her father cooked for me. The poor old boy did his best, but it wasn’t like the wife. Now I’ve had him looked after and I came on here.”

The service included a comfortable bed, hot breakfast, packed lunch plus bread, cheese and cocoa for supper. The cost was 24/6d (twelve pence) per week. It made me think how difficult it would be for lone men working in the docks or the Royal Arsenal. First, they worked very long hours and shift work. There were no take-aways, fridges or microwaves so cooking a meal after a long back breaking shift would be a dismal prospect. Standard shopping hours (9 until 5) would also present a challenge as would the long queues created by rationing. So perhaps not as bizarre as I first thought.


The Hostel was supported by the Red Cross and Greenwich Council. Mrs Davie who was much appreciated by the men for her fine needlework skills particularly darning socks had this to say:

“What I can’t understand is why there aren’t more places like this”

This remained the only one in the country and clearly appreciated by the men who lived there.

The cast iron Solomnic columns - St Barnabas Church

The cast iron Solomnic columns – St Barnabas Church

I have a fascination for St Barnabas Church because it has been moved and rebuilt then bombed and rebuilt. It’s such a powerful symbol of resilience. With the decline of the Woolwich Royal Dockyard its Chapel fell into disuse from 1923. The Royal Arsenal workers who lived on the new Garden City Estate (later re-named the Progress Estate) had erected a wooden hut (1917) in Arbroath Road to use for church services. In 1932 it was decided to take the Dockyard Church building down and to re-erect it in a reduced form as the local church for the Progress Estate. It was reconsecrated as the Church of St Barnabas. During a bombing raid, March 1944, it was seriously damaged and only the walls were left standing. The church was repaired and re-dedicated in June 1957.

Restored St Barnabas Church Eltham

Now whilst I’m a fan I’ve been frustrated that the church has been closed when I visited. Well all that changed recently;there was a sandwich board outside the church inviting passers by in. I was greeted by Rev Steve Cook who on finding out about my interest in the church told me more.

Exposed Skidmore capitals

Exposed Skidmore capitals

The Church was designed by George Gilbert Scot who commissioned Skidmore of Coventry to do the ironwork. The cast iron columns were highly decorative with foliage patterns and topped with gilt edged capitals. Columns with this spiral shaft were known as Solomonic as legend has it that columns like these ornamented the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. The St Barnabas columns were damaged in the bombing raid and have since been concealed all that is exposed is the capitals. The angels were a much later addition.

Hans Fiebusch mural

Hans Fiebusch mural

The apse of the church was painted by Hans Fiebusch who fled Jewish Persecution in Nazi Germany 1933 and settled in England. He became a member of the London Group in 1934 and regularly exhibited his paintings at the Royal Academy. In 1944 he was commissioned to do a mural for the New Methodist Hall in Colliers Wood and this led to a long association with the Church of England. After the war he was commissioned by the Diocese of Southwark to undertake work in churches that had been damaged. The painting in St Barnabas has a central figure of God which is illuminated in an eerie light which reinforces the apocalyptic aspect of the scene. My visit reinforced my view that St Barnabas is a real Victorian Gothic gem in this part of London.

Abbey Physic Garden Faversham

I thought I knew Faversham quite well so was really surprised when I stumbled across The Abbey Physic Community Garden; and what a delight it was. There is a walled pathway that runs from the Parish Church of St Mary of Charity along the side of Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School which I have walked several times before.

Faversham Physic Garden

I had noticed a door in the wall but this time it was open with a sign welcoming visitors into the Abbey Community Gardens. Set in the heart of Faversham it is a large walled garden teeming with people, wildlife, beds of herbs, vegetables and flowers.

Abbey Physic Garden Faversham

King Stephen and his queen Maud founded the abbey of St Saviour, Faversham in C12th and it remained open until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in C16th. Physic Gardens were a useful asset to a monastery infirmary and the monks would grow plants for their medicinal properties. Today, the charity that manage the site emphasise the therapeutic nature of the gardens. It is a Land Learning Centre with the Permaculture Association. Bill Mollison who first used the term permaculture describes it:

“Permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labour; and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single product system”.

Faversham Abbey Physic Garden

Looking around the garden you can sense this underlying philosophy. Its mission is to relieve the needs of disadvantaged groups by informal learning, meeting new friends or just enjoying the garden.

Abbey Physic Garden Faversham

The space of the garden is contained within ancient walls but with Tudor rooftops peaking above increasing the sense of a calmer period. This piece of sacred land has endured and is still providing healing to people who enter its walls.

The Autostacker

The Autostacker

The 60s may have been the period of “Peace and Love” but it was also a golden age of economic growth fuelled by advances in science and engineering. Harold Wilson’s White Heat of Technology speech captured the mood of the decade and Woolwich embraced it wholeheartedly. Since the founding of the Royal Academy 1720 and the opening of Woolwich Polytechnic (now Greenwich University) in 1890 the area had a long tradition in science and engineering. As Woolwich Borough Council was preparing to celebrate its Diamond Jubilee in 1961 what better way than to build an automated car park; the first in the World.

It was designed by J. A. Sterling who was responsible for building the longest Bailey Bridge in the World across the Rhine during the Second World War. He first thought of the automated car park when he was the General Manager of the United Africa Company and had to deal with fifty varieties of timber. It was difficult to get timber from the bottom of a pile so he set about experimenting with a Meccano set how to solve this problem. He used the same approach to designing the Autostacker. In fact, Meccano celebrated the opening of the Autostacker by making a scaled model.

Parking was fully automatic and carried out by remote control from a kiosk on the ground floor. The cars were transported mechanically at the turn of a key and the complete parking or collect cycle was planned to take a mere 50 seconds. There were eight floors each with a capacity for 32 cars. The official opening was 11th May 1961.

Her Royal Highness Princess Margaret, accompanied by her husband The Right Honorable Anthony Armstrong Jones, were the guests of honor and there was a grand Civic Ceremony. At 3.50pm Princess Margaret, Councillor R B Shike The Leader of Woolwich Borough Council and other officials proceeded to the AutoStacker in Beresford Street. What a day in Woolwich, the crowds, the anticipation and later the embarrassment.

Princess Margaret was to park a van donated by Dagenham Motors for use in the meals on wheels service. There were 256 keys in the Control Panel each corresponding to a parking bay. With one turn of the key the automated process begins. Well, not in this case the key stuck and the van remained stationary, Princess Margaret was unable to park the car. In fact no-one managed to park a car as the facility was closed to the public until the “snagging problems” were ironed out. They never were and it was one mighty engineering failure. The Autostaker never did open and was demolished in 1965.

Short video of the Autostacker




Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,277 other followers