Part Two of a series about City Guides – I cajoled the guides to tell their own stories. It was a great way to catch up with some of the lovely people I’d trained with in 2006. Part One also appeared in CityGuide Magazine, and is here.
I met up with Judy Stephenson one morning in St Mary Abchurch, headquarters of the Friends of the City Churches. Judy is an active member, and editor of their magazine Skyline. As well as having the pleasure of exchanging news with Judy, I was on a mission. I’m the founder and curator of a very small Museum of Dust, one of my ongoing projects, and wanted to add a minute sample of dust from the church’s Grinling Gibbons reredos to add to my rather eclectic collection.
Sadly the screen was too high, Health & Safety rules precluded me from standing on a chair or ladder to reach it, and in any case the church was far too well dusted. I spotted a splendid unicorn in the church, made by seventeenth century wood carver William Emmett (according to the church’s leaflet), but sadly this too was dust free. Unicorn dust is appropriately very rare.
As I was chatting to Judy in the sunny churchyard, three visitors arrived to discuss this year’s Grinling Gibbons 300: Carving a Place in History festival, each of them wearing a small but exquisite pearwood carving in their lapel, created by master carver Hugh Wedderburn, one of the visitors. He has kindly agreed to my visiting his studio, where I hope to collect a sample of dust from a contemporary wood carver’s workshop. As usual, the City is full of surprises, and meanwhile, my unicorn dust quest continues. …
Fabulous art galleries, subtropical gardens (Morrab and Trewyn), coast walks, ancient churches, boat trips, stunning views and a heated swimming pool – Cornwall as ever was a delight.
Forgot to mention Lord Nelson in a cupboard (the outcome of the Battle of Trafalgar was announced in the hotel ballroom above), and I revisited the outside of the St Ives house which once belonged to one of my favourite painters Alfred Wallis, although I suspect he didn’t have Venetian blinds at the time.
This week I called in again at Pollocks Toy Museum, to chat with D, ex-curator who comes in to the museum once a week to catalogue its contents – a mammoth task, as the museum has a myriad of nooks and crannies filled with surprising treasures.
Under the watchful and curious eyes of a crowd of dolls, D selected keys from an enormous bunch, and opened up the case containing a wooden Noah’s Ark, and one of the dolls house cases, but there wasn’t even enough dust to fill a tiny bottle.
No dust in a seaside bucket made of a recycled sardine tin either. In the end I managed to collect some dust by fossicking around a chimney in the older (c 1760s) part of the museum, in a room whose floor, delightfully creaky, has a four inch slope.
A treat today when I revisited Pollocks Toy Museum in Fitzrovia, one of my favourite museums. Afterwards I walked to Bloomsbury, calling at Arthur Beale‘s shop in Seven Dials. Beale‘s, supplier of ropes and all things nautical, is due to close at the end of the month, after more than four hundred years. I’ve been told it’s also where S&M enthusiasts get their gear.
The signboard outside gives a daily shipping forecast and Thames tide times information, so you’re always aware that you’re only a few minutes walk away from the river. There was a queue at the door, so I was only able to take some photos from outside in the rain. Very sad to see the passing of one of London’s iconic shops.
En route to Bloomsbury I was glad to see James Smith & Sons, supplier of umbrellas, walking sticks, and whips apparently, was still there. Of course the city changes all the time, but I’d just heard that despite public protest and petitions, the Whitechapel Bell Foundry (where the bell usually called Big Ben was cast), will be turned into yet another boutique hotel.
I nipped into the mysterious and wonderful Swedenborg House (site of some of my drawing workshops) to say hello and pick up a copy of Iain Sinclair’s Swimming to heaven: the lost rivers of London, The book is quite a propos my sadness for a London (and indeed a country) we’re losing to the greed of property developers and political shenanigans. To cheer myself up on the way home I called in at my favourite art supply shop Cornelissen and bought a new paint brush.
I had a fascinating chat with George, whilst I was en route to a picnic lunch in Regents Park. I know George slightly, through his connection to animator/film maker Lotte Reiniger, with whom he worked. I’d often seen him in Primrose Hill, going off to play tennis (he played till he was 95) or later, carrying bags of chemist items to his fellow tenants who were frail and housebound.
After I admired his lilac pullover, he said he hadn’t seen or smelled lilac for a long time, so I nipped across the road and nicked a sprig from someone’s garden (apologies to the garden owner but in a good cause). ‘It’s the first time a woman has given me flowers,’ he told me. George was born in Hungary, and is 101 years old. I was curious to know more, and George was happy to chat.
He came to this country in 1938, and after war broke out tried to join one of the armed forces. Despite being ‘A1 fit’ as he said, none of them would have him because he was Hungarian. At the time Hungary had connections with Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. George wanted to be a pilot, but the RAF wouldn’t have him either, so he joined the Norwegian navy, and aged 19 sailed in convoys going between Scotland and Canada. Twice he had to escape from a sinking ship hit by enemy fire.
Last year he was in hospital for several months after he broke his hip. ‘I’ve survived two shipwrecks unharmed’ he said, ‘and then that happened.’ He fell over getting out of his shower. ‘I slipped on a copy of the Evening Standard lying on the floor,’ he told me, and added with a wry smile, ‘It could at least have been a copy of the Times.’