Monthly Archives: February, 2016

National Maritime Museum

When you think of Greenwich, there are a couple of things that you think of. It’s an important spot in world geography and history because it is where time begins, as it were, marking the meridian line. Clocks were set here and the Royal Observatory was founded in 1675 by Charles II to help measure the time. Sailors would set the clocks on their boats from here, which brings us to the second thing that Greenwich is best known for: its naval and maritime history.

the_national_maritime_museum_newEven the earliest records of Greenwich show that it has had long links to the sea. It was a port for the Romans, the navy has its roots on the banks of the Thames, and it was where many cargo ships came to deposit their imports. There are no places in London, then, better suited to hold our National Maritime Museum.

Britain has always been a maritime nation, partly simply due to the fact that we’re an island, meaning that throughout history the navy has had to be strong simply to defend the coasts. With a navy that has rarely been rivaled and that led to a world in which the sun never set on the British Empire, we are justly proud of our seafaring history. The National Maritime Museum celebrates that legacy, combining history, art and science to showcase our finest moments.

Opened in 1937 by George VI, accompanied by his daughter, Princess Elizabeth (our future queen), the museum has since become a hugely important building, with a collection of over two million maritime-related artifacts. These include artworks, both British and Dutch, manuscripts, maps, navigational instruments, figureheads, ship models and astronomical tools. The museum also houses many items taken from Germany after the events of World War II, and depending on who you ask, these are described as “looted art” or “war trophies”. The argument is unlikely to be settled soon.

Despite appearing to be a scientific museum, it does however have so many portraits of sailors and explorers that only the National Portrait Gallery boasts more. Its wide range of displays related to Horatio Nelson and James Cook, among others, are bigger than any elsewhere.

national-maritime-museumBut even though it is clearly proud of our navigational history, there is also a strong sense of the present and the future. The museum explores how the British changed themselves and changed the world because of their unhampered exploration of the globe, and allows for a greater understanding of not only maritime history, but also cultural, economical and political history, and how these still have consequences today. There is also an exhibition dedicated to how we use the sea now, revealing just how much waste we throw into the oceans and what we need to do to save them before they are irreparably destroyed.

The Museum is also home to the Caird Library, the “largest maritime historical reference library” in the world, containing over 50,000 books, pamphlets and periodicals. Books, charts and maps here date back to the 1400s, and family historians in particular can find answers to genetic questions here.

Although perhaps not as well known as either the National History Museum or the Science Museum, the National Maritime Museum is nonetheless a wonderful look at Britain’s proud – if somewhat complicated and at times controversial – history riding the seas. Britannia rules the waves, after all, and this museum isn’t going to let you forget that in a hurry.

Denmark Street: Britain’s Answer to Tin Pan Alley

I spent last weekend in London which, ironically, is why I didn’t have time to write about London last week. Fortunately, I kept myself very busy up there, and as such have a number of things I can discuss in more detail. One of the mornings was taken up on a walk around Covent Garden and St Giles. While on this walk – taken from a guidebook – I found myself in Denmark Street. I’d known the name, but I didn’t know much about it, so I endeavored to do a little research.

The 108-foot long street may look unremarkable from a geographical position. At the southern end of Camden, with no tube station to call its own, and traffic only permitted in one direction, one could be forgiven for thinking that it isn’t worth mentioning. Originally situated on the grounds St Giles Hospital, a leper house, opened in the 12th century by Matilda, the wife of Henry I, was here. Having passed through several hands since then, during the reign of James II the area was developed and the street named for Prince George of Denmark, the husband of Queen Anne.

The area around Denmark Street was known as the rookery, an accidental slum. Home to plague, pestilence, many brothels and those who enjoyed a drink or eleven, the street gained a negative reputation. By the end of the 1800s, it had been mostly cleared up, but remains one of the very few London streets to still have “17th century terraced facades on both sides”. It held a number of residents who are still known to us today including Dr John Purcell (a doctor specialising in “the vapours”), painter Johann Zoffany, and Jacobite Sir John Murray who made his home here until a day where he was carried off by some strange men. That may be a story for another time. In the early 1800s, the street became one for businesses and offices to set up, and it then attracted Augustus Siebe, who invented the diving helmet. A blue plaque in the street acknowledges him.

But Denmark Street doesn’t begin forming its later reputation until 1911 when Lawrence Wright, a music publisher settled in and founded the journal for musicians Melody Maker. By the end of the 1950s, the street had become known as Britain’s “Tin Pan Alley”, and was full of music publishers, writers, singers, recording artists and anything else connected with the industry. Singers in the 50s starting taking songs from those writing in Denmark Street, and Lionel Bart, who went on to write Oliver! started working in the industry here.

In the 1950s, however, artists had started writing their own songs, and didn’t need writers anymore, so the street went out of fashion for a while, at which point it changed tack and started opening recording studios instead. Songs ranging from “I’ve Got A Lovely Bunch of Coconuts” to “You Really Got Me” started to come out of Denmark Street and once it was seen as the place you had to be if you wanted to make it in music.

One of Denmark Street’s familiar faces, the late David Bowie

Once the Rolling Stones had settled in to record there, a panoply of stars made their way to the street. Reg Dwight had started working at a music publisher in 1963, and seven years later he had changed his name and given the world “Your Song“. Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones, Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie and others all found work here and it became one of the coolest places in London. But it wasn’t just music producers here. In the seventies, guitar shops and a comic book store were installed on the street.

In 1980, disaster struck the street. Several unlicensed nightclubs were running in the street, and with badly maintained fire exits. When John Thompson, a local criminal was ejected one night in August that year, he returned and ignited the ground floor of one of the buildings housing a nightclub. Thirty-seven people were killed, and Thompson spent the rest of his life in prison. Another criminal is also associated with the street – the serial killer Dennis Nilsen. He worked at a job centre in the street and is notable for one Christmas bringing in a large cooking pot to help prepare the Christmas dinner. Unbeknownst to his colleagues, this was the very pot in which he had boiled the heads of his victims. A charming man.

In 1992, the last music publisher moved out of the street, and now the street is almost nothing but instrument shops. The owner of Andy’s Guitars, Andy Preston has tried to have the area rebranded as “Music Land”.

The whole area has been declared a Conservation Area, and the street itself has eight listed buildings, all Grade II, and while there are often talks of the place being redeveloped, there are protests from the current occupants about that who insist that it should retain its original character. To this day, the street will be known by those into music as an important location. Several of the shops specialise in guitars, but others sell sheet music, DVDs, and other instruments. The basement of number 22 is still a recording studio, and has been since 1954.

Although, as anyone can tell you, I am not particularly musically inclined, but even I could sense the importance of the place as I walked down it. It’s so small, and I’ve probably been through it many times before, but I’ve never really acknowledged its significance. Anyone with a love of music should pay a visit, just to say they’ve walked in the footsteps of the greats. May they forever live in, in Denmark Street.