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Pix & notes: South Kensington

My Professor and Mrs. Moriarty live in an end terrace in South Kensington, on a street I invented: Bellenden Crescent. It’s roughly in the location of the real world Pelham Crescent. 

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I spent a lot of time walking around in that neighborhood on my last trip to London, partly because I got a little lost, but also because I get into these moods where I can’t stop walking. One more block, I say to myself; I’ll just walk up to that corner and then I’ll stop for a coffee. But no, I walk on by. I don’t know what that’s about.

Boundaries

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A very Victorian view, if you mentally change the cars to horse-drawn cabs.

I tend to think of the whole stretch between Hyde Park and the Thames as South Kensington, but that’s not really right. London is more finely-grained than that. Google Maps says “South Kensington is an affluent district of West London in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. It is the most expensive district in London and one of the most expensive districts in the world.” No wonder it’s so clean and quiet! Rich people don’t hang out in public.

It looks like I cheerfully absorb Chelsea into my notion of Kensington. There’s no apparent seam; it’s not like you cross a street and find yourself in a less deliriously affluent neighborhood. I don’t have characters in Chelsea or much interest in the place, apart from the delightful Chelsea Physic Garden which I’ve blogged about and which you must try to visit if you ever can.

Looks like the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea runs from the Chelsea Physic Garden on the Thames in the southeast, north to Hyde Park and the big museum area, on along the south side of the park and then loop up to snag Notting Hill and then straight back down to the river roughly along the A3220.

Begin at the beginning

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Affluent Kensington cow

British History Online tells us “In Doomsday-book this place is called Chenisitun; in other ancient records, Kenesitune and Kensintune. Chenesi was a proper name; a person of that name held the manor of Huish in Somersetshire, in the reign of Edward the Confessor.”

Back in William the Conqueror’s day, the manor of Kensington was taxed at 10 hides. “on the demesnes are four ploughs, the villans have five, and might employ six. There are 12 villans, holding each a virgate, and six who hold three virgates jointly. The priest has half a virgate, and there are seven slaves; meadow equal to two plough-lands; pasture for the cattle of the town; pannage for 200 hogs, and three acres of vineyards”

This was still farmland in Francis Bacon’s time. With the expansion of titled courtiers in the London metro area under James I, a prestige house was built in 1607 by the father-in-law of Henry Rich, Earl of Holland. Baron Rich got himself earlified in 1624, by Charles I, then. He’s the son of Bacon’s contemporaries, Penelope Rich (sister of the Earl of Essex) and Robert Rich, 1st Earl of Warwick.

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Holland House, from British History Online

 

Building booms

Although less than half of the Kensington area was under cultivation by 1840s, it was still mostly green: parks and paddocks and that sort of thing. But by mid-century, the Victorian building boom had spread into that district and the landscape changed rapidly. “Despite a severe hiccup following a financial crisis in April 1847, the transformation of a rural parish into a city suburb was well under way before the siting of the Great Exhibition of 1851 in Hyde Park…” (British History Online.)

“…throughout the years 1862–78 over 200 new buildings (the vast majority of them dwelling houses) were erected each year in southern Kensington…”

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Professor Moriarty’s Bellenden Crescent
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Mark Twain lived here 1896-7

 

One of the major attractions of the area from the mid-Victorian period are the amazing enormous museums and exhibition halls. My Prof. Moriarty and Angelina meet at the International Exhibition Hall here in Moriarty Meets His Match. That’s gone, but the Victoria & Albert Museum, a place you can never get tired of, was established in Exhibition Road in 1852. Enormous, endlessly fascinating, and with possibly the most amazing museum cafeteria in the world. When you go there, have lunch!

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Who lived here, back in the day?

I’ve mentioned London’s Blue Plaques before, right? They’re granted by English Heritage to identify buildings of note, meaning buildings in which a notable person spent some time. Kensington and Chelsea are thick with them, since the borough was favored by the creative class: theater people, like my Angelina Moriarty; scientists who might have worked at one of the big museums; writers galore.

Go here to see the full list of blue plaques for the Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.

I choose neighborhoods – and sometimes houses – for my Victorian characters from this list. They tend to be a bit far from the sidewalk to photograph well, alas. Not all the plaques you see in London are official English Heritage blue plaques, although I’ve never seen one that might qualify as a form of sedate fake news. Many entities issue plaques, most notably borough governments.

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Sir Nigel Playfair wrote plays you’ve never heard of. Great name, though.

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Pix & notes: The Globe theater

I’ve been to two plays at Shakespeare’s Globe: The Tempest and Macbeth. Extraordinary, delightful, exceptional, memorable experiences, both times. I can’t recommend it too highly!

This wooden O: the Globe

Before 1576, when James Burbage built the Theatre for the sole purpose of staging plays, you enjoyed your theatrical performances in the home of a wealthy patron, the dining hall of your college, or the yard of common inn. I always think of that particular venue must have been like watching a performance of Our Town or Grease in the parking lot of a motel. Fun, if not very comfortable, and it must have been a beast for the actors.

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White Hart, Southwark

The Burbage had his brainstorm and built that round wooden building in Shoreditch, north of London’s city walls. That location was judiciously chosen. It’s nothing to walk up Bishopsgate, past the Dolphin and Bedlam Hospital — ten minutes if there’s a mad throng out of doors that day. But the City authorities have little to say about what goes on out here, so you have a better chance of putting on the show you want.

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Richard Burbage

The Theatre was so successful, other theaters were soon built. First the Curtain, also in Shoreditch, then Rose in Southwark. Then James’s son Richard formed a syndicate, so to speak, of actors in the Lord Chamberlain’s Company to build the Globe in Southwark. It was to be used exclusively by Lord Chamberlain’s Company. One of those actors was William Shakespeare, who made far more money from his shares in the building than he ever did as a writer. That proportion of return is still true today. 

The original Globe was built in 1599 and destroyed by fire in 1613. It was rebuilt in 1614, but closed by an ordinance of the Long Parliament in 1642. “The order cited the current “times of humiliation” and their incompatibility with “public stage-plays”, representative of “lascivious Mirth and Levity.” And sorry, y’all, but I do not have the attentional capacity to read about the Long Parliament today!

Raised from the ashes

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Sam Wanamaker

So, the Globe was closed. It was a wooden building, mostly open to the elements. It wouldn’t have taken long to fall apart. It vanished, as far as we’re concerned, until an American actor and director named Sam Wanamaker became possessed by the desire to recreate the original theater, as close to its original location as possible. The man was nothing if not persistent. He established a trust, raised millions of dollars, and got the job done. It’s as authentic as anything can be, right down to the hand-whittled pegs that hold the walls together. Hats off, Mr. Wanamaker, wherever you are!

I also recommend the guided tour — more work for off-duty actors — which I think you can do any time of year. It’s fascinating, the whole story, of how they figured out what to build and where and how, scavenging old materials and re-learning lost crafts. Really a monumental effort and a testament to our love of Shakespeare and drama and great acting and all of it.

An incomparable experience

If you ever get to go to London during the season, do not miss the chance to see a play at the Globe. They do lots of things besides Shakespeare, but see a Shakespeare play. It’s so much fun! You’ll never forget it. I’m not a big theater-goer, though I always love it and wish I would go more, so perhaps this is commonplace — but I doubt it. I think the Globe is special, both for audience and actors, especially when the play is one of Will’s. Book that seat as far ahead as you possibly can. Go by yourself or with a crowd — just go. And lunch in the cafe first, because they have very stylish sandwiches.

I’ve been twice, to see The Tempest and Macbeth. Both times I booked in February for a late summer performance and got great seats in the second level of the gallery. Wear sunscreen! You’re not far from the stage anywhere in the Globe, really. It feels small, intimate, immediate. The groundlings — the people who stand up in the big space in front of the stage — are usually busloads of high school students these days, not smelly peasants. No pix, no snacks, so no throwing of hazelnut shells and apple cores. You don’t need to worry about people taking a piss at the end of your row anymore, either.

But you can expect interaction between actors and audience. That’s part of the fun. One of the greenest members of the cast was clearly fascinated by the audience and seemed to enjoy us as much as we enjoyed him. Now of course I can’t remember who he played and I’m not finding it by swiftly searching. He was one of the Scottish noblemen, possibly MacDuff. At one point he’s wondering where Donalbain has gone, I think — Duncan’s son. He asks his questions of the groundlings, looking them right in the eye. One of them is so overcome by the force of the questions, he cried, “I got nothing for you, man!” We all laughed.

That would’ve been better if I remembered the lines. But go yourselves, and come back with a better story. Here are a few photographs to whet your appetites.

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