Thursday 28 January 2016

Soho Survivors

The first ever post on this blog was My Soho in December 2011. It covered some of my favourite Soho haunts and made reference to the loss of the unique character of the area as many of the long established businesses closed and the international chains began to move in.

That was in December 2011 and since then a number of other establishments have either gone or are under threat. The Astoria and music venues The 12 Bar and the Black Gardenia have been gone for a few years now, victims of the Crossrail development. Madame JoJo's a London institution has closed its doors for the last time in somewhat murky circumstances and the much loved Curzon cinema is also under threat - another potential victim of Crossrail. I'm all for improving transport across London but not at the expense of the city's cultural heritage and not if it means chaos in the west end for several years. Not surprisingly, a Save Soho campaign has been established.With all of this in mind, it's timely to revisit my beloved Soho and survey some of the remains of its rich cultural heritage. Here are some of my favourite Soho survivors.

Coffee, cake and jazz are three of my passions and Soho provides the very best of all three. Devotees of  patisserie are faced with the problem of choosing either Maison Bertaux in Greek Street or the original Patisserie Valerie in Old Compton Street. Both have a superb range of cakes and pastries, stunning window displays and interesting histories. Bertaux opened in 1871 and is the oldest patisserie in the city. Started by French refugees fleeing the Prussian siege of Paris, the owners lived upstairs and baked on the ground floor. Tradition has it that a lady of the night and a tailor also lived in the building so along with the tea rooms there was something for everyone. I have to confess to being a major fan of Berteaux due largely to the cakes but also because it is one of the few remaining places in the west end where you can see what were once called "characters" and where the regulars are known and recognised by the staff. My favourite place to sit is in the downstairs room where customers make their choices from the window before taking a seat either here, upstairs or in the room next door which was added a few years ago. There is occasional theatre in the upstairs room, but the whole place is dramatic, with its collection of assorted "stuff" in the downstairs room adding to the atmosphere. Those of you who have been will know what I mean!

Patisserie Valerie is a relative newcomer in comparison with Maison Bertaux. Originally in Frith Street it was founded in 1926 by one Madame Valerie from Belgium who wanted to introduce Belgian patisserie to London. The cafe was immediately successful and remained so until the Luftwaffe put a stop to things by bombing the building during the Second World War. Not deterred, Madame Valerie relocated to the current premises in Old Compton Street which retains much of its original 1950's decor. Both Bertaux and Valerie had a reputation as venues for secret assignations and each had their loyal customers who would not set foot in the other establishment. Patisserie Valerie is now a chain with several branches across London and in other parts of the country but the original Soho branch has kept its character and still has the air of an independent cafe.

The Algerian Coffee Store is a few steps from Patisserie Valerie at 52 Old Compton Street. Walking along the street you are likely to notice the aroma of freshly ground coffee several yards before reaching the red fronted shop. Founded in 1887 by one Mr Hassan, it has been under the direction of Paul Crocetta and his family for the last 40 plus years. Inside, there are more than 80 coffees from countries as diverse as Ethiopia, Bolivia, India and Papua New Guinea.  The beans are ground in front of you and you can ask for cardamoms and other spices to be added. There are also 120 types of tea, marzipan biscuits, Turkish delight, chocolates, mints and different kinds of coffee makers. The staff are extremely knowledgeable and can advise what to choose according to your preference.

Just around the corner from the Algerian Coffee Store, Bar Italia in Frith Street is another Soho survivor and a great place to drink mind blowingly strong coffee. Opened in 1949 by Italian immigrants Lou and Caterina Polledri, the cafe is still owned by the family today. The Polledris came to London in the 1920's and established a traditional Italian cafe in Long Acre, Covent Garden during the 1930's. Lou was interned as an enemy alien during the Second World War but Caterina managed to keep things going until he came home again.

When Bar Italia opened it quickly became a focal point for the Italian community, many of whom had been interned during the war years and who needed somewhere to meet, to swop news and to hear about employment opportunities. The cafe quickly gained a reputation for excellent coffee and was part of the "espresso revolution" that swept London in the late 1950's and 1960's attracting young people, especially hordes of "mods" who would park their Lambrettas outside. Bar Italia opens at 7 a.m. each day for breakfast, stays open until 5 in the morning and is always busy. The walls are covered with photographs of visiting celebrities whilst football matches are screened on a TV screen at the back of the cafe. I remember walking through Soho during the 1994 World Cup when an Italy game was being screened whilst the cafe burst at the seams with cheering football fans! Bar Italia has retain much of its glass and chrome decor as well as the original stone floor laid by family member Torino Polledri who was a terrazzo specialist.

Back onto Old Compton Street and at number 61 there is another Italian establishment, the I Camisa delicatessen. The shop has been here since 1961 but was originally at number 66 in the same street, opening in 1929 and closing ten years later when Ennio and Isidor Camsa were interned, first at Lingfield racecourse in Surrey before being sent to Warth Mills in Bury. The  Camisas then struck lucky. They were not included in a group of Italians placed on a luxury liner for deportation to Canada. They were lucky because the ship was sunk by a German torpedo and 730 lives were lost. The Camisas were released at the end of the war and returned to Soho to reopen their store. The shop is a delight with its cheeses, fresh pasta, delicious breads, wines and other Italian foodstuffs and like its near neighbour the Algerian Coffee Store, it gives off enticing aromas that help create the long queues that can often be found in the shop.

I rarely go to pubs these days but still enjoy an occasional visit to another Soho institution - the French House at 49 Dean Street. This Soho institution opened as The Wine House in 1910 under the management of German landlord Herr Schmidt. Schmidt was deported when the First World War commenced and was replaced by French speaking Belgian Victor Berlemont. Berlemont renamed the pub The York Minster and had a reputation for dealing with "difficult" customers by saying "I'm afraid one of us will have to leave and its not going to be me". During the Second World War the pub became a gathering place for French emigres including Charles de Gaulle who used the upstairs dining room.  

After the war, the pub began to attract an artistic, theatrical and literary crowd including Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, Brendan Behan and Daniel Farson. Farson had the distinction of being barred from the pub for behaviour he couldn't recall. Must have been something to do with the drink! The walls of the bar room are still decorated with photographs of London's culture elite from that period. In 1951, Victor's son, Gaston took over. A real Soho character with his flamboyant moustache (which young women would sometimes be invited to examine) and frequent hand kissing, he further emphasised the French connections of the pub. Like his father he was also able to deal effectively with drunks once famously intervening when a woman had thrown her drink in the face of a man who had been annoying her by saying "But madame, I see your glass is empty" and then refilling it.

The French House has not been without a racy side. In the early 1950's it came close to being closed down due to "goings-on" in the toilets. It was also here that Francis Bacon met model Henrietta Moraes and asked her to pose nude for him. Photographer John Deakin took pictures of Moraes for Bacon to work from before going on to offer copies for sale to visiting sailors. Very entrepreneurial. 

The French House is alive and well although it is sad that the upstairs restaurant is now under separate management and serves Italian rather than French food. I have happy memories of sitting in that tiny dining room which appeared twice its real size due to the mirrored walls, enjoying good food and from my window seat watching all human life pass by in the street below. Gaston died in 1999 but several of his rules have been retained, including selling only half pints and banning mobile phones in order to encourage conversation!

And finally, the best jazz club in the world. Ronnie Scott's originally opened in Chinatown's Gerrard Street in 1959 before moving to its Frith Street home in 1965, offering live jazz six nights per week. The club featured such giants of the jazz world as Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie and Sarah Vaughan as well as emerging and avant-garde musicians. Scott, himself an accomplished saxophonist ran the club until his death in 1996. I saw him just once when visiting London as a student in 1982. I visited the club with four student friends and saw Buddy de Franco perform. We were of course broke and managed to purchase only one bottle of Laski Riesling wine between us for the then enormous sum of £7 before rustling up enough change to buy a couple of unappetising burgers to share. Scott introduced the act, told a few jokes and threatened expulsion if people spoke during the performance. And he meant it. If only the same were true these days.

The club reached a peak in the early 1970's but then suffered a decline, facing potential closure at the end of the decade until Island records owner Chris Blackwell provided an injection of cash to keep it going under Scott's management. In more recent times, Ronnie's has been totally refurbished, improved somewhat its once dreadful food and formerly poor service and continues to attract the best jazz musicians in the world. Over the last few years I have seen, amongst others, Avishai Cohen, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Nicola Conte, Ramsey Lewis, Lonnie Liston Smith and Stacey Kent perform. This is probably my favourite place in all London with its great music, thrilling atmosphere and important history. 

Old Soho is gradually disappearing and there is a serious threat from that more will be lost due to increasing rents and the Crossrail development. Despite this, several of the older, cherished businesses continue to thrive and to attract new customers as well as hanging on to their loyal older clientele - like me. When Gaston Berlemont was asked what made the French House (and in my view Soho) special he said it was about the people "…they themselves create an atmosphere. Its no use putting up a couple of plastic onions and saying you're creating a French atmosphere, it doesn't work like that. Atmosphere is a human thing concerning hearts and souls". I agree with Gaston - but people need places to meet in which to create an atmosphere. It will be a sad day for London if any of these remaining Soho survivors disappear. 

Sunday 10 January 2016

More Camden Modernism - a cinema, some offices, flats and a chip shop!

London Borough of Camden is one of our city's most fashionable areas with many clubs, bars, and restaurants as well as leading cultural institutions and the world famous Camden market. It is also home to a very large collection of modernist and art deco buildings, primarily built in the 1930's, many of which have been maintained in excellent condition. I have written before about Hampstead's share of these buildings, here and here. This post looks at some excellent examples of the style in Camden Town itself, Kentish Town and Highgate. All four can be visited on foot taking a leisurely walk of about ninety minutes from Camden Town Underground Station including a short coffee stop en route (and a cheeky tube or bus ride at one point !). 

GIlbey House, Jamestown Road
Jamestown Road is a three minute walk from Camden Town Underground Station. Gilbey House stands at the junction with Oval Road. Built in 1937, it was designed by Serge Chermayeff,  one of the architects responsible for the fabulous De La Warr pavilion in Bexhill-on-sea. Far less ornate than the De La Warr, Gilbey House was originally the head office of Gilbey's wine importers and somewhat fittingly was built on the site of the former Stanhope Arms pub. It originally bore the Gilbey name, horizontally and in stylish lettering at one end of the building, just where that glorious concave element ends. The seven storey block has been renamed as Academic House.

Gilbey House at the junction with Oval Road
From Gilbey House its possible to take a short walk along the side of the Regent's Canal and pass the edge of Camden Lock where the food and craft stalls might tempt you into a short detour, before heading in the direction of Chalk Farm Underground Station. Just before reaching the station you will come to Ferdinand Street and Kent House, a great little apartment block built in 1935 for the St. Pancras Home Improvement Society. The Society was established in 1924, initially with the objective of improving the conditions of working class housing in the Somers Town area between Euston and St. Pancras. It was later renamed the St. Pamcras and Humanist Housing Association and interestingly was founded by Father Basil Jellicoe, a Church of England priest and Irene Barclay the first British woman to qualify as a chartered surveyor.

Kent House, Ferdinand Street.
Designed by Connell, Ward and Lucas, the white facade has contrasting green window frames and red metal work on the balconies. It consists of two five storey blocks with a shared courtyard between them - hidden from the street and set out nicely with planting and children's play equipment. However, the most interesting thing (for me) is the small retail unit to the side at ground floor level that originally served as a chip shop! How delightful (and very tempting) to have a chip shop built in to your block of flats! Unfortunately the chip shop is no more and instead the space is now occupied by Anise, a gourmet Chinese food outlet - indicative of the upwardly mobile nature of Kentish Town. 

Connell, Ward and Lucas were responsible for a number of modernist buildings in the UK but are most well known for their work on the High and Over in Amersham, Buckinghamshire and the nearby Sun Houses which you can read about here. Connell and Ward were both from New Zealand and related by marriage. Connell was a friend of fellow modernists Chermayeff and Berthold Lubetkin and was influenced by the work of French architects Andre Lurcat and Robert Mallet-Stevens. Less stylish than the Amersham properties which were of course for a different class of clientele, Kent House is none the less a great example of modernist architecture with its clean lines and stylised lettering over the main entrance.

Kent House, front entrance.
Kent House - the former chip shop.
Kent House balconies.
From here it's best to either take a bus or jump on the Northern Line at Chalk Farm, go one stop to Camden Town and then one stop more to Kentish Town in the opposite direction. Turn right on to Highgate Road when leaving the station and within a few minutes you will see the former Forum Cinema, a large art deco building on the opposite side of the road. Completed in 1934, it was designed by architect J. Stanley Beard, whilst W. R. Bennett was responsible for the interior. The Forum could seat 2,175 people in the stalls and on a single balcony. It was taken over by Associated British Cinemas (ABC) in 1935, eventually adopting the ABC name in 1963 before closing in 1970. It then became a bingo hall followed by an Irish dance centre and finally a concert hall which is its current function. The Forum regained its origin name in 1993 and is now listed with Grade II status.

Former Forum Cinema, Highgate Road.
Central pillars, facade, Forum.
Built in the more ornate art deco style, the facade is dominated by six central pillars at first floor level, interspersed with decorative glazing, and which link to the Roman theme of the building's name and with the original internal decoration. The Forum is only open when there are concerts and as the programme does not feature "my kind of music" I have yet to go inside but it is possible to peep through the doors and see a little of the beautiful mosaic floor in the lobby. Beard and Bennet were also responsible for the Forum cinema in Ealing, also built in 1934 and of which only the facade remains today. The doors from the Ealing Forum were moved to Kentish Town a couple of years ago to replace the lost originals.

West Hill Court, Millfield Lane.
From the Forum, it takes about 20 minutes to walk up Highgate Road until you reach Millfield Lane which branches off the main road and has a view of Hampstead Heath. The walk is uphill but there are several buses that take this route if it's a bit too far on foot, or alternatively there are several cafes to have a break. At the weekend there are often farmer's markets and other events on this side of the Heath, so you might also want to make another slight detour before reaching our final destination - West Hill Court. 

Designed by William Bryce Binnie and built in 1933, this beautiful white apartment block would perhaps be more at home in the sunshine of Melbourne, Tel Aviv or Nice than north London on a grey January day. It is a large block with a roof terrace, balconies for the apartments immediately above the main entrance and what appear to be the original crittall windows. A two bedroom flat was recently offered for sale here at just short of £900,000. For that you would get 971 square feet, porter services and access to a private tennis court, squash court and a "kitchen garden". Keep buying the lottery tickets.

Scottish born architect Binnie was extremely accomplished having studied at the Glagow School of Art where he obtained a gold medal. He worked briefly in New York and was involved in the design of Grand Central Station, before returning to the UK, where his work included the West and East stands of Arsenal football stadium and Addisland Court in Shepherd's Bush. Other overseas commissions included the luxurious Hotel Phoenicia in Malta.

Main entrance, West Hill Court.
West Hill Court is our final stop but if you want to explore more of Camden's art deco and modernist buildings,  you might like these - Picture Post 32 - Lawn Road Flats, Belsize Park - modernist masterpiece, artists and spies, More Hampstead Modernism or 2 Willow Road, Goldfinger in Hampstead.

Friday 1 January 2016

Bringing St. Hilda's back to life - more from Middlesbrough

I was born and brought up in Teesside. Redcar is my hometown and I went to secondary school in Middlesbrough. I spent many Saturday afternoons in the town centre, browsing the boxes in Alan Fearnley's record shop on Linthorpe Road, Hamilton's on Newport Road and Dean Wycherley's in the Cleveland Centre. Much time was also spent in the Wimpy Bar with my mates during my early teens before we graduated to drinking in the town centre pubs and then Mandy's and one or two other town centre clubs. It is many years since I lived in the north-east, 31 to be exact and every single one of these places is now gone. 

The River Tees - clean at last!
Despite spending lots of time wandering around the town, there was one place that we never went to - St. Hilda's. Known as "over the border" due to its being on the opposite side of the railway line from the rest of the town. It was a tough area, home to many people who worked in the ship building and steel industries or in jobs connected to the port and the river generally. There were a number of pubs and at least one club - The Bongo - that had what my friend describes as a "fearsome reputation" and people generally gave the area a wide berth. That friend and I both worked for the Council's library service and she reminded me recently that when the small local library housed in the original town hall (once painted by none other than L.S. Lowry) needed relief staffing, that male staff were usually sent because we "didn't send young girls to work there". 

The Transporter Bridge seen from the former salt works wall.
Middlesbrough has changed tremendously over the last few decades and like many northern towns has struggled to recover from the economic downturns of the 80's, 90's and recent years. It has also not been able to secure the kind of investment and regeneration that some of the larger northern cities have benefitted from. The haunts of my teen years and early twenties have disappeared but so has almost the whole of St. Hilda's - demolished in stages over a long period, in some cases to provide better housing (which was then in turn demolished) or to make way for developments that sometimes never happened. On a recent visit to Middlesbrough I decided to take  a stroll through this part of the town to see the changes and was pleasantly surprised at what I found - although there is still much to do to bring this area back to life.

In his great little book St. Hilda's, Araf Chohan sets out the history of the area and also details some of the developments that were proposed and never realised including a fantastic master plan adopted in 2004, partly the work of architect Will Alsop, which would have delivered what Araf describes as "…iconic structures, unique for this part of the world…" and which would have included offices, shops, hotels and restaurants as well as many new homes. Sadly only one set of offices and one residential block were built before the master plan stalled due to failure to secure enough investment.

The old Town Hall
The Captain Cook pub
Former port building
In 2014 another plan appeared, reinventing this part of town as "Middlehaven" and pretty much the whole area was cleared in preparation for this. Some progress has been made with Middlesbrough College and the 6th Form College now having substantial presence as well as the Riverside Stadium, home of Middlesbrough FC. This is all good but perhaps the most encouraging thing is that a number of heritage features have been retained including the once notorious (but apparently listed - hooray!) Captain Cook pub, the former Town Hall (which I am told is to be brought back into some use - although it is currently boarded up), the old Dock Clock Tower and other buildings connected with the river. I love the idea of the pub being brought back into use, which will hopefully include cultural activity as well as drinking whilst the old Town Hall would also be a great venue for music, exhibitions and other activity. Progress has already been made with the "Boho" project which has created space for business start-ups and digital business in a number of both heritage sites and new builds including the beautiful former bank close to the Albert Railway Bridge.

Former bank now used as part of the Boho project
Wall of the former salt works
The Transporter Bridge
As well as having links with steel, docking and shipbuilding, St. Hilda's was also home to a salt works that closed in 1946 and was then  demolished. Part of the wall of the works has been restored in Vulcan Street. The barred windows make for great views through to the iconic and much loved Transporter Bridge - a real symbol of the town. It would be great to see the local authority take advantage of the remaining, rich heritage of St. Hilda's to attract both visitors and serious investors to really bring this part of town back to life. And on the subject of being brought back to life, I was amazed at how clean the once filthy River Tees now is at Middlesbrough. The loss of the heavy industries meant many people lost jobs but it has also meant that industrial waste no longer goes into the river. I was surprised and delighted to see a group of three swans on the river in the red coloured reflection of a visiting ship. Beautiful - and unthinkable not so many years ago. Here's hoping new life can come to the rest of the area too.

Visiting ship and installation by Anish Kapoor
Swans on the River Tees at Middlesbrough