Taking a whirl on The Mighty Wurlitzer at the Musical Museum

I wasn’t sure what to expect from my visit to London’s Musical Museum, home to one of the world’s largest collections of mechanical musical instruments, but the phrase ‘giddy excitement’ seems appropriate. Like being let loose in a sweet shop as a child. This beautiful collection of self-playing instruments – collected from all over the world – is a real pleasure. Made all the better when listeing to these exquisite contraptions play live music. There are also recordings to listen to.

The Mighty Wurlitzer, Musical Museum, London, England

The Mighty Wurlitzer, Musical Museum, London, England

Rolls of music paper, Musical Museum, London, England

Rolls of music paper, Musical Museum, London, England

Film posters, Musical Museum, London, England

Film posters, Musical Museum, London, England

The museum is small but has a fabulous array of exotic self-playing instruments. There are pianola, pianos, violins, Hammond organs, Reed organs, theremins, gramophones, jukeboxes and much more. The names of the instruments are evocative of another age. Pianos on display include the Steck Duo Art, Steinwat Welte-Mignon and Chickering Ampico Model B; not to mention the Welte ‘Vorsetzer’, a remarkable ‘instrument’ which looks like a piece of furniture but plays an ordinary piano when rolled into place over the keyboard.

Welte Vorsetzer, Musical Museum, London, England

Welte Vorsetzer, Musical Museum, London, England

Metal perforated music disc, Musical Museum, London, England

Metal perforated music disc, Musical Museum, London, England

Within the three display rooms there is everything from tiny clockwork boxes to the museum’s pride and joy, a fully functioning Mighty Wurlitzer sat in a concert hall. I was lucky enough to hear it played live. If that wasn’t exciting enough, the Mighty Wurlitzer is an over-the-top art deco delight, complete with illuminated side panels which change colour from deep red to ice blue. This wonderful ‘instrument’ is connected by two thousand electrical wires to a room housing organ pipes and wind chests.

There are ordinary organs, most regularly encountered in churches; and then there are Mighty Wurlitzers, the pipe organ designed to imitate an entire orchestra. Fitted out with multiple keyboards, peddles and stop keys, it has percussion and special effects. On a Mighty Wurlitzer a person can play a piece of orchestral music – imitating trumpets, symbols, clarinets and violins – or mimic a train leaving a station, a galloping horse or the crashing of ocean waves.

The Mighty Wurlitzer, Musical Museum, London, England

The Mighty Wurlitzer, Musical Museum, London, England

The Mighty Wurlitzer, Musical Museum, London, England

The Mighty Wurlitzer, Musical Museum, London, England

The Mighty Wurlitzer descends, Musical Museum, London, England

The Mighty Wurlitzer descends, Musical Museum, London, England

Hearing a Mighty Wurlitzer in action is to be transported back to an age of concert halls and silent films. The Mighty Wurlitzer peaked in popularity in the 1920s and 30s, and was designed to accompany silent films, providing both an orchestral and sound effect soundtrack. The Musical Museum occasionally shows silent films with the Mighty Wurlitzer accompanying the on-screen action, which must be a wonderful experience – especially as it sits on a lift which raises it onto the stage and takes it down again.

Most of the larger instruments are operated by rolls of musical paper. The music is stored as perforations in the paper, these are read by the mechanism inside the machine which plays the correct notes. The first music roll was used commercially in 1883 in the USA. A pianist would play on a special piano that would mark a roll of paper as they played – a recording – this was then mass produced on machines in factories. The museum has two of these machines to show how the rolls were produced.

Music roll maker, Musical Museum, London, England

Music roll maker, Musical Museum, London, England

Violins played mechanically, Musical Museum, London, England

Violins played mechanically, Musical Museum, London, England

Rolls of music paper, Musical Museum, London, England

Rolls of music paper, Musical Museum, London, England

Many of the instruments were used in private homes – this was the way the wealthy middle class listened to music – others were in commercial settings. Dance halls, cafes and restaurants had them, as a result they have coin slots where people would pay for a tune. Our guide fumbled around getting an old 1p coin out of a mug, then sliding it into the coin slot he brought to life a machine that played two violins and a piano. We could see the entire workings as it played a popular 1900s tune: paper rolls going round and small wheels lowered onto the violin strings. Absolutely wonderful.

Instruments, Musical Museum, London, England

Instruments, Musical Museum, London, England

Paper roll and piano, Musical Museum, London, England

Paper roll and piano, Musical Museum, London, England

Instruments, Musical Museum, London, England

Instruments, Musical Museum, London, England

It is a privilege to see, and hear, so many working examples of such wonderful mechanical instruments. Unfortunately, the Musical Museum receives little funding and is only open three days each week. It is staffed by volunteers, many of whom are expert craftspeople who undertake repairs and maintenance on the instruments. It’s a small museum – which takes an hour or so to visit – and the £10 entry might seem a bit steep, but listening to the Mighty Wurlitzer in full voice makes £10 seem cheap.

Tales from the riverbank, memories of the English Civil War

These memories, I might add, are not my own, although the long winter days can make you feel several hundred years old. The English Civil War erupted in the late summer of 1642, following two years of protracted negotiations and disagreements between King Charles I and Parliament. London didn’t see much fighting during the conflict, and remained firmly in the hands of Parliamentary forces throughout the war.

London didn’t see much fighting that is, except for two critically important battles fought in West London at the very beginning of the war. Had these battles proved decisive for the King, London would have been captured and, without the huge support of London’s population, Parliament might not have triumphed over Charles I. The simple truth was, without London’s wealth and manufacturing, the Royalists couldn’t hope to win the war…not that anyone realised it at the time.

The River Thames near Richmond Locks, London, England

The River Thames near Richmond Locks, London, England

Boat on the River Thames, London, England

Boat on the River Thames, London, England

It is difficult to imagine today as you walk down the tranquil River Thames from Kew to Richmond, but there was vicious fighting here in November 1642. Parliamentary gunboats sailed along the river and bombarded Royalist forces massing at the stronghold of Syon House, which was damaged by artillery fire. A short distance from where I was walking on the Thames, the main battle was fought at Brentford (literally a crossing over the River Brent), an important entry point into London.

Syon House from the River Thames, London, England

Syon House from the River Thames, London, England

Syon House from the River Thames, London, England

Syon House from the River Thames, London, England

The River Thames near Brentford, London, England

The River Thames near Brentford, London, England

I was heading to Richmond Locks, where I planned to cross the Thames and loop back to Kew on the north bank of the river. A route which would take me through the grounds of Syon House and past the site of the Battle of Brentford. First though, I hoped to be able to get a sight of the Kew Observatory. Also known as the King’s Observatory, it was completed in 1769 at the request of King George III so he could witness the transit of Venus across the sun. At the time, this area was still considered countryside, and light pollution wasn’t the problem it is today.

Sadly this monument to the human fascination with the heavens isn’t open to the public. Worse, its in the middle of a private golf course, at the entrance to which are lots of forbidding signs about how plebs (sorry, non-members) aren’t permitted to enter. This means you have to trespass and risk being hit by flying golf balls, or turn back. Wishing the Parliamentary army was still around to sort out the golf club, I headed back to the river and continued along my way. I did find this photo though, from the London Bytes blog…

Kew Observatory, London, England

Kew Observatory, London, England

The River Thames near Richmond Lock, London, England

The River Thames near Richmond Lock, London, England

Crossing the river I was soon on the north bank heading east and passing through the grounds of Syon House. Closed for the winter, I had to make do with the view from outside the fence, and, as time was getting on, I pressed on to Isleworth. On the first half of my walk the lovely riverside location of the 14th Century All Saints Church in Isleworth had been illuminated by the sun. I now walked down Church Street, past some lovely Georgian houses and The London Apprentice pub, to the church itself.

All Saints Church in Isleworth, London, England

All Saints Church in Isleworth, London, England

All Saints Church in Isleworth, London, England

All Saints Church in Isleworth, London, England

The row of houses opposite The London Apprentice were once home to Arthur Penty (1875–1937), an architect and writer on guild socialism and distributism. Much more exciting though, it was also the home of the actor, William Hartnell, best known as the first Doctor Who from 1963–1966. He lived opposite The London Apprentice from the 1920s.

Arthur Penty's house in Isleworth, London, England

Arthur Penty’s house in Isleworth, London, England

All Saints Church in Isleworth, London, England

All Saints Church in Isleworth, London, England

All Saints is a bit of a disappointment. The church was gutted by fire in May 1943 and only the tower remains from the original. You may be thinking “May 1943? Did the Luftwaffe bomb the church?”, but the fire was the result of arson by two local schoolboys. Their crime spree saw another nearby church burnt down before they were caught. The replacement building is the product of 1960s Utopian architectural thinking, and is incredibly ugly. The sun was going down, so I pressed on through Syon Park, finally arriving at the site of the Battle of Brentford (1642).

Brentford was fortified with two regiments of Parliamentary soldiers, and was attacked by Royalist cavalry and Dragoons. As you walk down a busy road, passing through some fairly deprived areas, towards the site of the battle, its hard to conjure an image of charging cavalry, musket shot and thundering canon. Thundering trucks, yes, but this nondescript place offers up few hints of its history.

Site of the Battle of Brentford, London, England

Site of the Battle of Brentford, London, England

Site of the Battle of Brentford, London, England

Site of the Battle of Brentford, London, England

Although the Battle of Brentford was won by the Royalists, led by Prince Rupert, it wasn’t decisive, and the following day the two main armies clashed at Turnham Green. Again the battle was inconclusive, but Charles I decided to retreat to Oxford and spent the winter there. This was a disastrous decision for his hopes of winning the war. He would never come close to capturing London again, and his failure at Brentford and Turnham Green over the weekend of 12 and 13 November, 1642, would result in the loss of his kingdom and his head.

Tales from the riverbank, a walk around Kew

I love walking the River Thames, especially in west London where the city starts to fade away and things become a bit greener. At Putney the concrete paving of the Thames Path National Trail turns into a muddy track, and the grinding urban landscape gives way to become almost rustic. There are more trees than buildings, dog walkers in Wellington boots outnumber people tapping away on their mobile devices. In a crowded city the river offers a sense of space, the vast sky becomes visible.

The River Thames and Strand-on-the-Green from Kew Bridge, London, England

The River Thames and Strand-on-the-Green from Kew Bridge, London, England

Rowers on the River Thames from Chiswick Bridge, London, England

Rowers on the River Thames from Chiswick Bridge, London, England

You never quite leave the city behind, wandering off the river path will bring you abruptly back into an urban environment, but between Kew and Richmond there is a wealth of green space linked by the river. Kew is known as the home of the Royal Botanical Gardens, the magnificent UNESCO World Heritage Site dedicated to all things plant, but Kew itself is a lovely place.

Walking up river on a cold, sunny winter’s day is wonderful; sunny days have been in short supply and because it was mid-week the Thames Path was largely empty. The cyclists and joggers who take to the path in their hundreds at weekends, were safely tucked away in office buildings, leaving it in the care of a few dog walkers and my good self. Passing under Chiswick Bridge along the tree-lined path the occasional rowing boat passes, and the only reminder that you’re in a city of eight million is the buzzing airplanes overhead.

Thames Path sign, London, England

Thames Path sign, London, England

Thames Path near Kew, London, England

Thames Path near Kew, London, England

River Thames near Kew, London, England

River Thames near Kew, London, England

Ducking under a railway bridge, trains thundering overhead, you soon spot Oliver’s Island. This small wooded island in the middle of the Thames is rumoured to have been a secret base from which Oliver Cromwell led operations during the English Civil War. There’s no truth to the story, but the name has stuck. Once past the island you find yourself at Kew Bridge, with the option of going into Kew or crossing the river to Strand-on-the-Green along the north bank.

River Thames and railway bridge, Kew, London, England

River Thames and railway bridge, Kew, London, England

Oliver's Island, Kew, London, England

Oliver’s Island, Kew, London, England

River Thames, Kew, London, England

River Thames, Kew, London, England

Nestling in a bend of the river, Kew retains a distinctly village-like feel – albeit a very well heeled village. In part the village feel exists because Kew retains that most traditional of village landmarks, a ‘green’. Kew Green’s grassy public space is a large area surrounded by elegant Georgian houses. It is home to a cricket pitch and in the centre of the space is the splendid looking Church of St. Anne.

St. Anne’s was built in 1714 on land given to the Church by Queen Anne. Its a grand-looking building sitting amidst Kew Green, if you could climb the tower you’d be able to see the Royal Botanical Gardens just beyond the Green. Unsurprisingly, there are a number of people buried here who are associated with the Botanical Gardens, including Sir William Hooker, Director of the Gardens, and his son, botanist and explorer, Sir Joseph Hooker.

St. Anne's Church, Kew, London, England

St. Anne’s Church, Kew, London, England

St. Anne's Church, Kew, London, England

St. Anne’s Church, Kew, London, England

Headstone, St. Anne's Church, Kew, London, England

Headstone, St. Anne’s Church, Kew, London, England

Kew is almost as strongly associated with artists as it is botanists; its no surprise that the cemetery’s most famous resident is the wonderful landscape artist, Thomas Gainsborough, who lived nearby. It is also the burial place of German neoclassical artist and fellow member of the Royal Academy, Johann Zoffany. Zoffany lived at Strand-on-the-Green and enjoyed the patronage of King George III and Queen Charlotte, giving him access to the highest society.

Johann Zoffany's tomb, St. Anne's Church, Kew, London, England

Johann Zoffany’s tomb, St. Anne’s Church, Kew, London, England

River Thames, Kew, London, England

River Thames, Kew, London, England

Zoffany was, alarmingly, unique amongst contemporary artists. William Dalrymple, the historian and writer, has described him as “the first and last Royal Academician to have become a cannibal.” I’m sure that’s not how he’d prefer to be remembered, but sadly its true. Zoffany was returning to Europe from India when he was shipwrecked off the Andaman Islands. The desperate, and desperately hungry, survivors held a lottery in which the loser was turned into dinner.

Strand-on-the-Green, River Thames, Kew, London, England

Strand-on-the-Green, River Thames, Kew, London, England

Strand-on-the-Green, River Thames, Kew, London, England

Strand-on-the-Green, River Thames, Kew, London, England

Strand-on-the-Green, River Thames, Kew, London, England

Strand-on-the-Green, River Thames, Kew, London, England

The river is tidal at Kew – and for a few more miles up river. The tide was high the day I was there, it doesn’t affect walkers too much but is a recurring issue for people living on the banks. The houses which dramatically line the river at Strand-on-the-Green are regularly inundated with water. Walking past them on a footpath still wet from when the river most recently came over the bank, their vulnerability to flooding is clear. Many doorways are set high in the wall for just such an occasion.

Strand-on-the-Green, River Thames, Kew, London, England

Strand-on-the-Green, River Thames, Kew, London, England

Strand-on-the-Green, River Thames, Kew, London, England

Strand-on-the-Green, River Thames, Kew, London, England

While messing around by the river I discovered the Musical Museum, home to a collection of mechanical musical instruments, including a giant Wurlitzer. The museum was closed, but there’s no way I can resist the appeal of a giant Wurlitzer…

Wife swapping and summoning angels, the supernatural John Dee

Blue skies and sunshine have been hard to come by in London recently, and the weather forecast is relentlessly grim. When the sun does shine, there is a limited window of opportunity to enjoy it. During these short winter days a cold but sunny day is special. The light lasts longer into the afternoon; a sign of things to come, that the worst of winter is behind us.

I decided I’d walk along the Thames from Barnes Bridge to Kew Bridge. The tide was high and parts of the path were flooded and impassable. This proved lucky, I came off the river at Mortlake and discovered the lovely Church of St. Mary the Virgin. The stonework of the church tower looked old, the cemetery was atmospheric, but the supernatural connections of a person buried here makes St. Mary’s special.

Chiswick Bridge from the Thames Path, London, England

Chiswick Bridge from the Thames Path, London, England

St. Mary the Virgin Church, Mortlake, London, England

St. Mary the Virgin Church, Mortlake, London, England

Plaque to John Dee, St. Mary the Virgin Church, Mortlake, London, England

Plaque to John Dee, St. Mary the Virgin Church, Mortlake, London, England

Inside the church is a plaque to John Dee. The name was familiar, but I couldn’t remember why. With access to a computer, it dawned on me that a modern opera, Dr. Dee, recently celebrated his life. The work of Blur frontman, Damian Albarn, and future head of the National Theatre, Rufus Norris, it premiered in 2012. This isn’t the first time Dee’s featured on stage, Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest is thought to be based on him. A fitting portrayal since Dee is credited with summoning the storm that smashed the Spanish Armada. He’s also fictionalised in Peter Ackroyd’s novel, The House of Doctor Dee.

A trusted adviser to Queen Elizabeth I and her court, Dee was a mathematician, alchemist, astronomer, mystic, astrologer, geographer and occultist. He was rumoured to be a spy and he famously owned one of the largest libraries in Europe. He was a student of the teachings of Hermes Trismegistus, a pre-Christian writer/prophet, possibly a contemporary of Moses, who influenced many early Christian thinkers. This is the sort of discovery that happens when the Thames floods.

Portrait of John Dee

Portrait of John Dee

John Dee's 'Seal of God' in the British Museum © Vassil

John Dee’s ‘Seal of God’ in the British Museum © Vassil

John Dee had an extraordinary life. During the reign of Mary Tudor, he was imprisoned for for attempting to murder the Queen through black magic. He was lucky to keep his head. Considered an intellectual giant in his time, at the age of twenty he lectured at the University of Paris on algebra. He was deeply religious, but in a superstitious era, when people grasped at anything to make sense of the mysteries of the physical world, his ‘knowledge’ of astrology and the supernatural made him invaluable to Elizabeth I. He chose her coronation date to ensure it was auspicious.

John Dee demonstrating an experiment at Court, © The Wellcome Trust

John Dee demonstrating an experiment at Court, © The Wellcome Trust

His study of astronomy made him an ‘expert’ in navigation, at a time when Europeans were   starting to explore the New World. Dee had made friends with legendary map maker, Gerardus Mercator, while in Belgium. It seems he stole some of Mercator’s maps and on his return to Britain published a book, General and Rare Memorials pertayning to the Perfect Arte of Navigation. This proposed English expansion around the world – a blueprint for empire. Established as the foremost expert on navigation, he trained many of England’s merchant adventurers before they set sail for the New World.

To a modern mind, Dee’s mysticism took him in bizarre directions, including communing with angels, by which he believed it possible to understand the divine fabric of the world. He seems to have believed a confidence trickster, the ‘spirit medium’ Edward Kelley, who claimed to be able to hold ‘spiritual conferences’ with angels in Enochian, the angel language. The angels dictated several books to Kelley and the ‘spiritual conferences’ were taken seriously – both men were invited to the court of the King of Poland.

St. Mary the Virgin Church, Mortlake, London, England

St. Mary the Virgin Church, Mortlake, London, England

Gravestone, St. Mary the Virgin Church, Mortlake, London, England

Gravestone, St. Mary the Virgin Church, Mortlake, London, England

In 1587, Kelley told Dee that an angel had ordered both men to share everything in common, including Dee’s much younger wife. If that doesn’t set alarm bells ringing, I don’t know what does? Dee believed this to be a divine order and complied. History doesn’t record how Mrs. Dee felt about this divinely inspired arrangement. We do know that she died of plague in 1604, there is no evidence to suggest this was divine vengeance.

Today, Dee would be seen as a deluded religious fantasist, but that is the benefit of living in an age of science. In his own time he was considered one of Europe’s foremost scholars, taken seriously by Kings, Queens and religious authorities. He was, after all, a contemporary of Nostradamus. Sadly Dee’s grave has been lost over time, but he was buried at St. Mary the Virgin in 1609. The church itself was constructed in 1543 on the instruction of King Henry VIII and makes for happy wandering.

St. Mary the Virgin Church, Mortlake, London, England

St. Mary the Virgin Church, Mortlake, London, England

St. Mary the Virgin Church, Mortlake, London, England

St. Mary the Virgin Church, Mortlake, London, England

In another coincidence, just over the road from the church I came across a memorial to the the Lower Dutch House, part of the Mortlake Tapestry Works. The Tapestry Works were established in the 1620s on the site where John Dee’s house had stood and, as so often in English history, it attracted highly skilled immigrant Flemish tapestry workers. The tapestries made here were famous and very valuable.

The Lower Dutch House, Mortlake Tapestry Works, London, England

The Lower Dutch House, Mortlake Tapestry Works, London, England

Chiswick Bridge from the Thames Path, London, England

Chiswick Bridge from the Thames Path, London, England

Back on the river, the tide was going out and I could continue on my merry way to Kew Bridge…

The rutting stags of Richmond

A few weeks back, I found myself in Richmond Park, one of London’s most beautiful parks, and a ‘green lung’ in West London – you need a lot of trees to absorb the CO2 all the planes dump on London as they land at Heathrow. The park is huge by London standards, covering an area of approximately 2500 acres, making it the second largest green space in the city. It’s a glorious place with a long history, and royal links going back to Edward I’s reign (1272 – 1307). It took its current shape in 1637 under the unfortunate Charles I, who twelve years later would lose his head to the English Revolution.

Red Deer in Richmond Park, London, England

Red Deer in Richmond Park, London, England

Red Deer in Richmond Park, London, England

Red Deer in Richmond Park, London, England

What makes Richmond Park special though isn’t its size, but the sense of isolation you can find when you wander into the interior. On a mid-week day its possible to find yourself alone in a city of seven million people. Although the park sits in the middle of an urban area with a sizeable human population, it is entirely enclosed by a wall – with numerous entry and exit points – and has changed little over the centuries. Consequently, there are ancient mature trees in the park.

It was Charles I who introduced one of the main features of the park, a large number of Fallow and Red Deer. Charles created a deer park for royal hunting, originally called New Park to differentiate it from an existing park, now called Old Deer Park. Although the public had traditionally had access to the park, this ended in 1751, when Princess Amelia closed it to all but a small number of her friends. This caused a public outcry and, after a legal battle, the park reopened to the public in 1758. Public access was eventually guaranteed by an Act of Parliament in 1872.

Red Deer in Richmond Park, London, England

Red Deer in Richmond Park, London, England

Fallow Deer in Richmond Park, London, England

Fallow Deer in Richmond Park, London, England

Red Deer in Richmond Park, London, England

Red Deer in Richmond Park, London, England

In the Autumn, the male deer compete for females during the annual rutting season. The deer are wild, but normally aren’t a danger to humans, or their pets; however, in the rutting season they have been known to attack people and dogs. The Red Deer, in particular, are huge and have enormous antlers: it would be inadvisable to get too close. Its quite extraordinary to witness a natural phenomenon in such close proximity to a major urban area, and while passenger planes fly overhead.

When I was there, there were a lot of deer in evidence – given that they roam all over the park, a sighting isn’t always guaranteed. Watching the males charging around, all sound and fury, trying to herd more females into their harem, or trying to stop other males from stealing females, was hugely entertaining. On the outskirts of the groups of deer were lone males, too young to compete or already defeated in battle, but unwilling to go too far from the group just in case they got lucky!

Red Deer in Richmond Park, London, England

Red Deer in Richmond Park, London, England

Red Deer in Richmond Park, London, England

Red Deer in Richmond Park, London, England

Fallow Deer in Richmond Park, London, England

Fallow Deer in Richmond Park, London, England

I walked around for several hours, coming across groups of the smaller Fallow Deer and the much larger Red Deer. The Red Deer may be more dramatic because of their size and their magnificent antlers, but the Fallow Deer give them a run for their money in the energy stakes. The male Fallow Deer rarely seemed to stay still for more than a few seconds, before spotting a challenger, real or imagined, to chase after. Some of the deer were out in the open and attracted quite a few people, others were in high bracken and quite alone.

Red Deer in Richmond Park, London, England

Red Deer in Richmond Park, London, England

Fallow Deer in Richmond Park, London, England

Fallow Deer in Richmond Park, London, England

Red Deer in Richmond Park, London, England

Red Deer in Richmond Park, London, England

Red Deer in Richmond Park, London, England

Red Deer in Richmond Park, London, England

As befits a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a National Nature Reserve, the park is rich in flora and fauna. Over 1000 species of beetle have been recorded in the park, including the endangered Stag Beetle and Cardinal Click Beetle. Several types of bat live here, as well as foxes, rabbits, voles, shrews and mice. Thanks to the grazing of the deer, the park has a special habitat, with a high level of flora diversity. It is the largest area of Lowland Acid Grassland in the London area.

Red Deer in Richmond Park, London, England

Red Deer in Richmond Park, London, England

Red Deer in Richmond Park, London, England

Red Deer in Richmond Park, London, England

Red Deer with bird in Richmond Park, London, England

Red Deer with bird in Richmond Park, London, England

In a city as big as this, its sometimes difficult to feel any connection to nature, but deer rutting season is one of the great natural events to take place in London. It is only really rivalled by the birthing period from May to July. Hopefully I’ll be able to go back and record that as well.

Benedict Arnold’s final resting place, a church with artistic pretensions

Sitting picturesquely on the banks of the River Thames, I must have walked past St. Mary’s Church, Battersea, dozens of times without once realising that it’s history matches it’s splendid Georgian architecture. This has been a site of Christian worship for over a thousand years, and although there was probably nothing wrong with the Medieval church that stood on this site, the wealthy citizens of Battersea insisted on rebuilding the church in the 1770s. It was then that it acquired the graceful 130 foot spire, which still dramatically rises above the River Thames.

St. Mary's Church, Battersea, London, England

St. Mary’s Church, Battersea, London, England

St. Mary's Church, Battersea, London, England

St. Mary’s Church, Battersea, London, England

Portico, St. Mary's Church, Battersea, London, England

Portico, St. Mary’s Church, Battersea, London, England

As with most churches in Britain these days, St. Mary’s is only occasionally open, for services and a weekly nursery. The rest of the time, having the doors open would probably result in the theft of everything valuable. It was only by chance that, walking past on my way to Hammersmith, I discovered the church open and I was able to sneak inside for a look around. Fortune was on my side, because inside I met the vicar, Canon Simon Butler, who had a couple of minutes to spare to point out some of the history.

I’d already spotted a stained glass window dedicated to the pantomime villain of the American War of Independence, Benedict Arnold. This church is the burial site of one of the most notorious names in American history. I couldn’t quite believe that this fact had escaped my attention all this time. At the time of the American War of Independence (1775 – 1783), Arnold was considered a defector and traitor by Americans, a patriot by the British. He’s still reviled as a traitor in the United States, but is largely forgotten in the country where he lived out the rest of his life.

St. Mary's Church, Battersea, London, England

St. Mary’s Church, Battersea, London, England

St. Mary's Church, Battersea, London, England

St. Mary’s Church, Battersea, London, England

Gravestone, St. Mary's Church, Battersea, London, England

Gravestone, St. Mary’s Church, Battersea, London, England

The inscription on the window reads, “The two nations whom he served, in turn in the years of their enmity, have united in this memorial as a token of their enduring friendship.” It is decorated with the flags of the two nations from both periods in history. For those who still bare a grudge against Arnold, he was originally buried in the crypt, but when the crypt was converted into a usable room his remains became mixed up with those of all the others buried there. His remains now reside in a mass grave, unmarked and unidentified.

St. Mary's Church, Battersea, London, England

St. Mary’s Church, Battersea, London, England

St. Mary's Church, Battersea, London, England

St. Mary’s Church, Battersea, London, England

Benedict Arnold window, St. Mary's Church, Battersea, London, England

Benedict Arnold window, St. Mary’s Church, Battersea, London, England

You might think one famous name enough for any church, but St. Mary’s has a host of famous connections. Walking around the church, three other stained glass windows are dedicated to eminent people associated with the church. One belongs to the poet and artist William Blake (1757 – 1827). Largely regarded as mad, or at least eccentric, by contemporaries for his views, including free love; he is, today, recognised as one of the most important poets of his age. Blake was married at St. Mary’s in 1782.

William Blake window, St. Mary's Church, Battersea, London, England

William Blake window, St. Mary’s Church, Battersea, London, England

J.M.W. Turner window, St. Mary's Church, Battersea, London, England

J.M.W. Turner window, St. Mary’s Church, Battersea, London, England

William Curtis window, St. Mary's Church, Battersea, London, England

William Curtis window, St. Mary’s Church, Battersea, London, England

One of the other windows is dedicated to the artist, J. M. W. Turner (1775 – 1851), who painted river scenes on the Thames from the vestry window of St. Mary’s. He also sketched St. Mary’s from across the river, a picture which can be seen on the Tate website. The final window is dedicated to William Curtis (1746 – 99), a long forgotten botanist and entomologist, who collected many samples from the churchyard and surrounding area. The church has even more illustrious connections yet though…

There was probably a church on this site in 800 AD, a typical Anglo Saxon church. The church is recorded in the Doomsday Book of 1086, where it was noted that King WIlliam (the Conqueror) had given the church and its lands to Westminster Abbey. The church was remodelled and added to over the years, growing significantly in size, until its eventual rebuilding in the 1770s.

St. Mary's Church, Battersea, London, England

St. Mary’s Church, Battersea, London, England

After Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, the church passed into the hands of the St. John family. That is, until the ownership of Battersea Manor was bought by Earl Spencer in 1763. Today, Charles Spencer, the 9th Earl Spencer and the brother of Diana, Princess of Wales, is still its patron. It was his ancestor who gave the permission to build the current church to better represent the aspirations of the increasingly wealthy inhabitants of newly fashionable Battersea.

Gravestone, St. Mary's Church, Battersea, London, England

Gravestone, St. Mary’s Church, Battersea, London, England

By the 1760s, Battersea was considered a fashionable country retreat from the crowded streets of London – not that you’d guess that today. In 1766, Battersea Bridge was opened, meaning access to the area was much easier, and there was an influx of wealthy residents. There are still plenty of examples of the houses of that period in the Battersea area, and today it is still a very well-healed area of London. This stretch of the River Thames is tidal, when I was there the tide was out, allowing me to wander around on the temporary ‘beach’ created on the river bank.

St. Mary’s reopened in 1777, unusually for London, the church was given a portico, which ironically gives it a similar feel to churches in New England. Today it is a Grade I listed building, which has been somewhat overshadowed by a new block of apartments made from steel and glass – such is London’s regard for its historic treasures.

Peace Pagodas and Power Stations, the Thames at Battersea

London is home to many iconic buildings. St. Paul’s Cathedral, Buckingham Palace, the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament, the Gherkin, the Shard, the Walkie Talkie. The list, from ancient to new and shiny, goes on and on. I’d be prepared to bet that, for a sizeable number of Londoners and visitors alike, the giant 1930s designed and built Battersea Power Station, would make their top ten of London’s architectural icons.

Battersea Power Station, London, England

Battersea Power Station, London, England

Every time I pass the now decommissioned power station, I can’t help but marvel at the simple elegance of its design and its monumental proportions. The architecture is even more wonderful for being an industrial building: a blast from a long forgotten past, when we cared about the aesthetic of our industrial heritage. The interior of the building has a wealth of Art Deco fixtures and fittings, although it isn’t possible to go inside any more due to the dangerous condition the building has been allowed to fall into.

Chelsea Bridge, Battersea, London, England

Chelsea Bridge, Battersea, London, England

River Thames opposite Battersea Park, London, England

River Thames opposite Battersea Park, London, England

Egyptian-themed bench, Chelsea Embankment, London, England

Egyptian-themed bench, Chelsea Embankment, London, England

Stood overlooking the River Thames, next to Chelsea Bridge and a short distance from the lovely Victorian-era Battersea Park, Battersea Power Station holds the remarkable claim to be the largest brick-built building in Europe. The Thames-side location allowed the river to be used for cooling water, and for coal to be delivered more efficiently. It is a crying shame that it has been allowed to become derelict, thanks mainly to the ineptitude of government and vagaries of private capital.

Ever since it closed in 1975, there have been a series of attempts to develop the site. It seems, finally, a solution has been found. The building will be preserved, but all around it over 3500 apartments will be built. I’ve seen the architect drawings, and I can’t help but compare the contemporary vision for architectural heritage unfavourably. The vision that led to Battersea Power Station being build as an industrial Art Deco delight, is light-years ahead of the 21st Century vision for the site with its identikit glass and metal boxes.

Victorian-era lamppost opposite Battersea Park, London, England

Victorian-era lamppost opposite Battersea Park, London, England

Albert Bridge, Battersea, London, England

Albert Bridge, Battersea, London, England

Albert Bridge, Battersea, London, England

Albert Bridge, Battersea, London, England

The power station is a cultural icon for more than its architecture. It featured in The Beatles’ 1965 film, Help! More hilariously, it was used on the cover of Pink Floyd’s 1977 album, Animals. Legend has it that they tied their signature giant inflatable pig to one of the chimneys, only for it to escape and float into the path of passenger airplanes trying to land at Heathrow. A giant flying pig is probably not what you want to see if you’re a pilot. Its best viewed from the north bank of the Thames or from Chelsea Bridge, followed by a stroll through one of my favourite parks.

River Thames from the Albert Bridge, Battersea, London, England

River Thames from the Albert Bridge, Battersea, London, England

Battersea Park, London, England

Battersea Park, London, England

Battersea Park sits on the River Thames between the utilitarian Chelsea Bridge and the ornate, ‘wedding cake’ structure that is Albert Bridge. Albert Bridge is close to (the now closed) Chelsea Barracks, soldiers had to break step when marching over it to stop it being damaged. Prior to the park being constructed in the 1850s, this area was known as Battersea Fields. A large open area of fertile marshland, it was renowned for being market gardens which supplied London with melons, vegetables – including the famous Battersea asparagus – and lavender. In fact, the lavender was grown all the way from here to modern day Lavender Hill.

Being close to town, but still considered fairly rural and isolated, this area was also popular amongst aristocrats, who came here to settle their differences with a duel. The Duke of Wellington is said to have fought a duel with the Earl of Winchilsea here in 1829. Both men fired to miss and Wellington received a written apology. Throughout this period, Battersea Fields had a very unsavoury reputation for crime, including an illegal Sunday market featuring stolen goods. It was also home to a notorious public house, the Red House.

River Thames, Battersea Park, London, England

River Thames, Battersea Park, London, England

Festival Gardens, Battersea Park, London, England

Festival Gardens, Battersea Park, London, England

This was the backdrop to an Act of Parliament, which made a compulsory purchase of the land to construct Battersea Park possible. The park was opened by Queen Victoria. Today it is a classic Victorian Royal Park, a mixture of lakes, woods, open spaces and a wonderful riverside walk, which has good views over the river. There is an area known as the Festival Gardens, designed for the Festival of Britain in 1951, an attempt to renew national pride after World War II. Along the riverside walk can be found one of the more unexpected sights the park has to offer.

Peace Pagoda, Battersea Park, London, England

Peace Pagoda, Battersea Park, London, England

Peace Pagoda, Battersea Park, London, England

Peace Pagoda, Battersea Park, London, England

Although a Peace Pagoda seems to be a bit of an oddity in a London park, spotting its graceful spire amongst the trees of Battersea Park, it looks like it has always been there. In reality, it was constructed in 1985. It was offered to London by the Nipponzan Myohoji Buddhist Order from Japan, during a period of Cold War tension and fears of nuclear attack, as a symbol of peace and harmony in the world. Today, the Buddha statues look on as dog walkers and joggers go past, and the River Thames flows endlessly to the sea.

Albert Bridge sign, Battersea Park, London, England

Albert Bridge sign, Battersea Park, London, England

Prince Albert pub, Battersea Park, London, England

Prince Albert pub, Battersea Park, London, England