Bees in the City

Have you noticed there are more bees in London? Me neither, apart from 10,000 that swarmed on a pyracantha bush at the bottom of my garden last May [see picture below].

Now I realise that we should see more bees after reading Steve Benbow’s The Urban Beekeeper, for its author is on a mission with all the zeal of an evangelist to turn the capital into an apiarist’s paradise, bringing local honey to its residents.

[H]is paternal grandparents tended bees on their smallholding in Shropshire giving Steve a taste for honey and working with the little critters. He spent years learning his craft from the master beekeepers and rural locations but felt that London could benefit from their introduction.

Removing bees Years of intensive farming had denuded the supply of nectar and pollen, and more importantly reduced the diversity of plants attracting the bees. Steve had aspirations to bring bees into London. After talking to other beekeepers from Paris, Rio and New York he moved to Bermondsey 17 years ago and set up hives behind the lift shaft on the roof of his flat.

The sky was the limit, well at least some of London’s tallest buildings. He persuaded Fortnum & Mason’s to give up roof space for the bee hives, painted in Fortnum’s trade mark duck-egg blue. For the famous grocer it seemed as if they had turned full circle.

In 1707 Hugh Mason had a small shop in St. James’s Market and a spare room in his house, which was taken by William Fortnum, a footman in Queen Anne’s household. The Royal Family’s insistence on having new candles every night left the budding entrepreneur enough wax for a sideline that gave him enough money to start what was to become the famous Piccadilly store.

Now Steve maintains hives on some of London’s greatest landmarks, Tate Modern, Tate Britain, the National Portrait Gallery selling local honey. Apparently London’s plant diversity makes for really good honey that varies enormously from borough to borough and Steve hopes to eventually have hives in all of London’s 32 boroughs; Dark and aromatic from Bermondsey, citrusy Westminster or the slightly bitter tones of Harrow.

The only problem with the apiarist’s success is the gruelling work load. Reading his book you realise that there is a lot more to beekeeping than jus extracting honey. To maintain hives across the capital involves heaving lifting, often at great heights, working nights, apparently it’s the best time to transport them and tending his bees throughout the year.

The chapters of his book are sub-divided into the calendar year giving an insight into his often nomadic life and the work that goes into giving us the true amber nectar.

Steve Benbow in a London roof: ©Julian Winslow

Seeing Red – and other colours

For some time now I have been meaning to visit the National Gallery’s summer exhibition – Making Colour, claimed by the organisers to be the first exhibition of its kind in the United Kingdom. The ability to produce colours has long been a quest of man, and for someone who drives a vehicle, the colour that many artists would describe as a non-colour, I have always been fascinated in man’s ability to produce colour in its myriad forms.

[T]he exhibition staged in the Sainsbury Wing, the gallery that Prince Charles memorably described of its predecessor as: “. . . monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend”

The inside of the Sainsbury Wing has a rather austere soulless air about it. Wide staircases, high ceilings, artificial light; one wonders what the original design that Prince Charles lambasted was like. But I was here to see colour, not acres of cream Portland stone.

The exhibition is split up into six rooms and the entrance lobby. A very user friendly audio guide is available for a modest £3. This I would recommend, the videos on paint preparation are worth the price alone.

In the lobby is J. W. M. Turner’s paint box found in his studio after his death, alongside his very chaotic palette. Adjacent is a self-portrait by Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brin. A fashionable lady showing off her pristine palette organised with colours running in sequence.

Le-Brun And this is how the exhibition is organised each room showing the development of colour: The Quest for Blue; Painting Green; Fashionably Yellow; Seeing Red; Royal Purple; and Gold and Silver.

For me the star room is undoubtedly The Quest for Blue, that most expensive and ethereal of colours. Many blues had green undertones or faded over time until the Afghani stone lapis lazuli was discovered. Customarily used to paint the Virgin Mary’s robes it was considered to be more expensive than gold.

Roger-Hiorns-Seizure-2008 But the most interesting piece in the exhibition is not a piece of figurative art but what might have been described as an installation. In 2008 artist Roger Hiorns flooded an abandoned flat in Harper Road with 75,000 litres of copper sulphate solution. When he drained it a month later, every inch of the flat’s surfaces was covered in piercing blue copper sulphite crystals, one of the pigments used in modern paints.

Roger Hiorns named it ‘Seizure’ and it became a cult hit. It has since moved to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, a place utterly unlike the rough-and-tumble of brutalist Peckham. Instead, the work now sits among the gentle rolling hills.

Making Colour is at the National Gallery until 7 September.

Roger Hiorns Seizure by aqnb CC BY-NC-SA

Churchill’s chair

It’s a little known fact that you can still find in smoke free London places where one can enjoy a cigar while drinking one’s coffee.

St. James’s Street has some of the capital’s oldest shops, Locks, Lobbs and Berry Bros. and Rudd.

One of the newer incumbents (arriving a mere 225 years ago) is London’s oldest cigar retailer, James J. Fox at number nineteen.

[H]ere leally you may smoke indoors with one stipulation, you have to buy a cigar from them and smoke it with a view to purchasing more should you so choose.

Robert Lewis began trading from the premises in 1787 selling tobacco in 1992 competitors James J. Fox; a business founded in Dublin in 1881 acquired the company renaming it to its present title.

ChurchillChair The shop has had many famous names passing through its doors. In 1900 Winston Churchill bought a box of 50 Bock Giraldas and became a regular customer. He would sit savouring his purchases in a special chair reserved for his use whilst sampling the proffered stock. Now in the small museum downstairs you may sit on the chair for a photo opportunity.

From 1891 Oscar Wilde would also pop into the shop to buy cigars as the meticulous ledger in the museum show, along with a high court letter showing that he had an outstanding balance of 7/3p for purchases made between 5th September 1892 and 24th June 1893.

Other exhibits include a box of cigars made for the Great Exhibition of 1851, sitting within the glass case used to display them to Queen Victoria, herself was not a regular but most of her family were customers.

Antique accessories, old photographs and memorabilia associated with its famous customers are displayed in this small and intimate museum.

Freddie Fox Museum at 19 St. James’s Street, is open Monday to Saturday 9.30-17.30, entry free.
Winston Churchill’s chair at the Cigar Museum London © J. J. Fox Limited

Daylight robbery

Pity the poor double glazing salesman who tries to convince the owners of Bloomsbury House to install windows in the bricked in recesses of their house. They are the result of tax-dodging the precursor to today’s Council Tax and in so doing have made a lasting mark on London’s architecture.

It is 1696 and King William III has squandered money fighting in Ireland and Europe.

[A]t the time it was thought, quite reasonably, inappropriate for the State to interfere in the private matter of one’s earnings – hence no income tax.

The imposition of a property tax was blamed on the practice of clipping coins, but the outcome was the same, it was just a sneaky way to raise revenue.

Every house with more than 6 windows had to pay a flat rate of 2/- a year [equivalent to £12.11 at today’s prices], those with 10-20 windows 4/- [£24.22] and mansions with above 21 windows 8/- [£48.44].

Overnight a cottage industry bricking up additional windows over 9 developed. Even houses which were built after the imposition of the window tax were constructed with blocked up windows come the day the tax was repealed. Here at Bloomsbury House its owner had builders install 18 windows but then block up 9 of them (to the side of Southampton Place). This was just enough to avoid the tax, but left available the option of glazing them should the tax regime change. Or could he have foreseen that Southampton Place in modern times would become a busy one-way thoroughfare.

With builders busy blocking up windows King William changed the Act to include a charge on just 7 windows, it’s about this time the term daylight robbery is thought to have been coined.

The tax lasted for 150 years until 1851 when it was conveniently abolished just in time for the erection of a building made entirely of wind

The London Grill: Stefan Dickers

We challenge our contributor to reply to ten devilishly probing questions about their London and we don’t take “Sorry Gov” for an answer. Everyone sitting in the hot seat will face the same questions that range from their favourite way to spend a day out in the capital to their most hated building on London’s skyline to find out just what Londoners really think about their city. The questions might be the same but the answers vary wildly.

Stefan-Dickers[S]tefan Dickers is the Library and Archives Manager at Bishopsgate Institute, Spitalfields, and looks after its extensive collection of books, pamphlets, maps, photographs and oral histories on London history, as well as the labour movement, protest, atheism and the co-op. He is passionate about history. The Institute and its historic collections, and West Ham United and will talk about them at length to anyone who will listen!

What’s your secret London tip?
Well, dealing with London History at Bishopsgate Institute on a daily basis, you won’t be surprised to find it will be a bookshop. I love visiting and highly recommend Newham Bookshop on the Barking Road where you will find any book you could ever want on London history (as well as having a good natter with Vivian and the other staff). Some friends are also doing wonderful and fascinating work recording London history and culture and I highly recommend the daily stories by The Gentle Author on the Spitalfields Life blog ( and, if you get a chance, go on one of Alan Gilbey’s cracking East End Backpassages walks. Apart from these, always walk or take the bus everywhere…you’ll always see something that will make you giggle or ponder!

What’s your secret London place?
I love where I live in Wapping. Although it’s not secret, it feels like it could be miles away from London, even though it’s just minutes from Tower Bridge. It’s quiet and there’s no bustle which is just the antidote sometimes to working all day on Bishopsgate. However, beware the joggers! There are hundreds of them in Wapping. They come at you from all directions and show no mercy.

What’s your biggest gripe about London?
Probably the chain shop mania and the lack/decline of independent, interesting shops and cafes, etc. Just like rats in London, you’re never more than ten metres away from a Prêt a Manger or Starbucks….

Bishopsgate-Institute What’s your favourite building?
Well, I would obviously have to say, Bishopsgate Institute where I work in the Library. It’s a beautiful Grade II listed Arts and Crafts/Arts Nouveau building and one of the very few left not made out of chrome and glass in the area! The Library at the Institute is a must-see. I also love the imposing Senate House building in Russell Square where I studied for many years

What’s your most hated building?
It would have to be City Hall or, especially, the Gherkin and the Shard. You can’t avoid seeing the last two wherever you go in London. The River Police Station in Wapping High Street is pretty grim too!

What’s the best view in London?
Without doubt, it has to be the view along the Thames from the South Bank at night. I could sit there contented for hours.

What’s your personal London landmark?
The Imperial War Museum in Lambeth and the Geraldine Mary Harmsworth Park next door. I got taken here literally every week by my Grandad when I was growing up and told stories about the war which probably explains my interest in the past and oral history! A walk round the Museum would be followed by a run around on the adventure playground in the park. I always remember fondly when I end up there!

What’s London’s best film, book or documentary?
I absolutely love The London Nobody Knows, the documentary based on books by Geoffrey Fletcher about hidden London made in the late 1960s and featuring James Mason as the guide. Mason is laugh-out-loudly miserable and wonderfully sardonic. It also shows a beautifully grimy London before everything was cleaned up or re-developed, and the psychedelic scenes in Chapel Market and the Egg-Breaking Plant have to been seen to be believed! I also adore the Ealing comedies, so Passport to Pimlico, the Lavender Hill Mob and It Always Rains on a Sunday would have to be in there too. Oh, I can’t leave out the Long Good Friday . . . as gangster Harold Shand would say, that would be a ‘diabolical liberty’!

What’s your favourite bar, pub or restaurant?
I’m not a big boozer but, if a do fancy a pint or two, there are some corking pubs still to be found. Around where I work in Spitalfields, I would definitely recommend The Water Poet on Folgate Street and The Bell in Middlesex Street. Further afield, I have spent many a happy hour in the Cittie of Yorke on High Holborn, The French House in Soho and The Coal Hole on The Strand.

How would you spend your ideal day off in London?
Well, this could be a rather extensive answer! It would definitely start off with a stroll down to Brick Lane to get a lovely salt beef bagel in the Bagel Bake, followed by a bit of culture at the Tate Modern or the National Portrait Gallery, two places I can go to again and again, and always find new things. This would be followed by a stroll along the South Bank with a browse of the book stalls under Waterloo Bridge and an hour in the wonderful Mediatheque at the BFI to watch some old films and documentaries. This would have to be followed by a trip to a West Ham home game at the Boleyn Ground with an emphatic win, preferably against Tottenham or Chelsea!

This ‘Grill’ was first posted on the Radio Taxis blog.