Sunday, August 7, 2016
Breakfasting for a Change with Company:
It was lovely to wake up and have company at home--for if there is one downside to my being here in London, it is that I have started to feel a bit lonely. I believe it has to do with the fact that I am living in a house with a garden (as opposed to a flat) and it certainly seems like too much house for one person. Anyway, hopefully I will not feel lonesome for too long...
N and C were downstairs by the time I finished blogging and scouting information on the Internet about the places I wished to see today. When I joined them, they were tucking into cereal and tea. I fixed myself some coffee and got my own cereal organized. We chatted a bit over brekkie and then at 9. 45 am, I excused myself to go to church.
Mass at St. Dunstan's Church on Stepney Green:
When I lived in Holborn, one of the oldest churches in England, a Roman Catholic one--St. Etheldreda's--was right at my doorstep in Hatton Gardens. Now that I am here at Stepney Green, one of the oldest churches in the county--an Anglican one--is just a hop away: the Church of St. Dunstan And All Saints, which has stood on this tranquil spot since 975 AD.
And there really is a place called Stepney Green (after which the entire neighborhood is named). It is a proper 'green' which is a central bit of open space usually around a church and ringed by houses--this was the medieval pattern of town planning. Stepney Green abuts the church property--a vast and impressive bit of green dotted with graves and mortuary monuments. Sung Mass was at 10.00 am and I was keen to participate in it. In keeping with my custom of going to a different church each Sunday that I live in London, it was my choice this week.
The main celebrant was a Nigerian Anglican pastor usually attached to the Royal Hospital in London which is a short hop away. There were about fifty people in the congregation. The inside of the church is antiquated and although it suffered severe bomb damage during World War II (as did the entire East End of London) which blew out every bit of stained glass window, it has been rebuilt and still manages to look older than a few centuries. I enjoyed the service very much. The sermon was particularly wonderful: the main theme was that it is necessary for us to "Invest in Eternity." I loved the concept as delineated by the priest. After Mass, there was coffee and biscuits and fellowship--all Anglicans churches follow this custom and it is something I have always appreciated. It gave me the opportunity to meet a few people--a teacher who lives in Mile End but teaches chemistry in a school in Rochester, Kent; one of the female church wardens who gave me a mini tour of the interior, explained the reason why Christ is depicted so unusually on the modern stained glass windows (blonde and without a beard). It is because the artist modeled him on the features of the pastor of the time (of the post World War II period) who had commissioned the new windows! The chemistry teacher is in-charge of the bell ringers and the church has a lively tradition of bell-ringing. So, before I left the church, I received an invitation to join the bell-ringers on Thursdays at 7. 30 and try my hand at learning how to ring them. Apparently it is far more complicated than you would think! I have every intention of going there this coming Thursday as I am always up for one more new experience.
Back Home and then Out Again:
I took the bus home to change into something more comfortable and to make myself a sandwich for lunch. My intention was to get to a most unusual museum in London and one that is probably very little known--The Ragged School Museum at Mile End. In past visits to London, I have either been based in the West or in Central London. I do not really know the East End well at all--I figured this would be a great time to get to know it. Research told me about this strange museum and since it is open one afternoon on the first Sunday of every month, I decided to get there today.
Visiting The Ragged School Museum at Mile End:
It was really easy to get there. I took the Bus 25 to Mile End Tube station (one stop away) and then followed directions to get to the museum. This took me to the Tow Path of Regent's Canal (which was also one of the items on my To-Do List) and on a glorious morning with the sun on my back and a cool breeze on my face, it was just lovely to walk along the banks of the sea-green canal (green with algea), passing one of the locks (Johnson Lock) and a number of walkers, joggers, bicyclists, etc. In less than ten minutes, I was at the doors of the Museum.
So here is a bit of history about one of the city's most unusual places: The Ragged School is so-called because most of the girls and boys who attended it were so poor that they arrived in rags. It was founded by a Rev. Thomas Barnardo (you have probably seen charity shops all over the country that still bear his name). He was the son of an Irish mother and a Jewish father and hoped to be a missionary in China. When he was refused a commission to get there, he ended up in the East End of London in the 1880s when the area was one of the most impoverished in the country. He was so broken at the sight of starving children--so many of whom worked as chimney sweeps and died young for their pains--that he devoted his life to setting up a school to educate them to equip them for a better life. He rented three buildings along the canal that had been abandoned because they were pronounced uninhabitable and, through local fund-raising, set up a school that offered the children two meals a day: a breakfast of bread and hot cocoa and lunch of bread and soup. It would be the only food the children would eat all day--which was why their parents encouraged them to attend. By renovating the building, he turned the basement level into a play area, the main level was the office and the top level was a single classroom.
Getting a Victorian Lesson:
I joined a short line of visitors standing at the entrance, five minutes before the opening time of 2.00pm, most of whom were children. They had arrived in time for the monthly Victorian 'lesson' that is taught by a Victorian class-teacher in an actual Victorian classroom--just as real Victorian children would have been taught in 1886. We were seated on benches with desks that opened up to become cabinets for books (we had similar desks in my school in India). The teacher told us that her name was Miss Perkins. She was dressed in Victorian garb with floor-length skirt, full-sleeved white high-necked blouse, her hair in a tight chignon, a pair of glasses on her nose and a hooked cane in her hand. When she got into character, you could have sworn you were whisked over a hundred years into the past. The cane was used for pointing to the board, to a map on the wall and to beat the desk to gain attention. Rev. Barnardo did not believe in corporal punishment and his teachers were, therefore, forbidden from using the cane on the children (Good for him! A man certainly far ahead of his times!)
During the next hour, Miss Perkins appointed monitors who presented us with slate boards, chalk and a small rag with which to wipe our slates. She taught us to copy the alphabet as it was written on the board with all the fancy Victorian curls and curlicues. She taught us Math (or as they say here 'Arithmetic') and she taught us Spelling. We were expected to sit up straight (no slouching) or else we'd be placed in a wooden back brace (which she showed us) for 20 minutes. If we fidgeted too much, the punishment was to place us in finger stocks (and she showed them to us too). Our names would be noted in the Punishment Book. She was strict and stern and did not smile at all. We had to stand to answer her, stand to wish her at the beginning and the end of the lesson. There was honestly very little difference between the protocol in her classroom and the protocol that had prevailed in my convent school in India in the 1970s--which explains why I disliked my school days so much!
What a brilliant experience it was! From the manner in which she went around the class to examine our hands (to make sure they were clean) to the way she addressed us and barked orders out at us, it was a totally amazing afternoon. The Museum is free and doesn't get too many visitors--but if you are a Victorianist or if you are a child who wishes to regress into the past and find out, first-hand, what it might have been like to be poor and to have had the opportunity to study, this is the place to which you ought to go.
I then spent about 20 minutes more in the museum reading the exhibits carefully with my eyes misty with tears at the misery of those poor children. I learned so much about the poverty of the East End and the fact that so many of the children who studied at Barnardo's school were then shipped off to Canada where they found work and made new lives for themselves. The school was marked as unsafe for use after the 1940s and was turned into a museum quite recently in order to preserve a Victorian slice of life in a neighborhood that became rapidly gentrified.
I was quite hungry by this time (not having eaten much after coffee and biscuits following Mass), so on my walk along Regent's Canal on my way back, I pulled out my sandwich, found a shady bench in the park and ate my picnic lunch.
Off to the Queen Elizabeth Olympics Park:
Since I was only one stop away on the Tube from Stratford where the Olympics were held four years ago and since this is the week of the Olympics in Rio in Brazil, it seemed apropos to get to the Olympics Park that has been named after the current monarch. I took the Central Line Tube for one five-minute stop, got off at Stratford and simply followed the teeming crowds to the Park.
The designers of the space have taken care to see that you part with some money along the way--for the Westfield (East) Shopping Mall joins the train station building and is packed with shops from huge department stores (like Marks and Sparks) and supermarkets (such as Waitrose) to small trendy boutique shops. On a lovely warm summer's day, the crowds were thicker than flies with folks shopping, eating at the many chain restaurants that have sprouted up (including Danny Meyer's Shake Shack) or walking towards or out of the Park.
Part of the Olympics Park itself has been turned into an amusement park with a roller coaster, swings, bouncy castles, etc. taking over one part of it. The Acelor Mittal sculpture by the British-Asian sculptor Anish Kapoor dominates the space--it is a contemporary Eiffel Tower. It is now possible to take a ride along it on what has come to be known as The Slide. Tickets are available online but I did not see too many people from the spot from which I viewed it. The landscaping is wonderful with one side of the canal paved and the other turned into a green bank. The Aquatics Center is open to the public and people have become members for the use of the pool, the diving boards, etc. I caught a glimpse from the outside as the pool was closed today (much to the annoyance of the members who had come to use it). Buildings are mushrooming all over the area and very soon it will become one of the most upscale parts of the city. You can see the towers of Canary Wharf quite near at hand. It is pretty amazing what this part of London will shape into as the years go by.
I was very pleased that I made it to this area as I had wanted to visit for quite some time but had never gotten down to it. On the way back, I stopped at Waitrose to pick up cheese scones and cream cheese and at M and S for a special dessert that I love (Caramel Pecan Roulade).
I took the Tube back from Stratford, got off one stop later (at Mile End) and then took the 25 bus for just 2 stops to my home. I was inside the door by 6.30 pm. N and C had left and things were very quiet again. I got upstairs to my room and had a nice videochat with Llew and talked to a couple of local friends on the phone before I decided to get some dinner.
Tomorrow I shall get back to the salt mines--there is work to do in the British Library where I shall probably spend most of the day.
Until tomorrow, cheerio...