Sphinx Aren’t What They Used To Be

A couple of unusual things happened this weekend. Firstly, the weather forecasters predicted two full days of complete sunshine and a temperature of 21C. In London. In early April. The second strange thing was that this absurd prediction actually came true. Normally during such a weekend I might typically have driven down to the coast, or maybe spent some time cycling in the park. But a few recent events have conspired to suck some of the energy and enthusiasm out of me. So instead I unfolded my handwritten list of Cemeteries I Haven’t Yet Visited, closed my eyes, and randomly prodded the paper.

West Norwood Cemetery is a 40 acre site in south east London, so for me that’s a 30 minute train ride up to central London, followed by a further 15 minutes out through the other side. It’s one of The Magnificent Seven, the group of private cemeteries that were established in the 19th century to deal with overcrowding at the various parish cemeteries. It’s not the first of the seven I’ve visited.

The cemetery had its first burials in 1837, and although all the plots are now taken, the crematorium is still active and you can have your ashes stashed in the columbarium. It holds London’s finest collection of sepulchral monuments, has 69 listed structures, and is on the National Register of Historic Parks and Gardens. It’s a peaceful place.

All of these were shot with an orange filter, most of them them with the wonderful (but hefty) Mamiya Sekor C F/2.8 45mm lens (35mm equivlant=28mm). I semi-stand developed them (one gentle inversion at the half-way mark) in a 1+99 dilution of Rodinal for 60 minutes. I find this gives a really nice level of bite without being too grainy. On these sunny, cloudless days I don’t bother with the onboard meter. I just use sunny 16, allow an extra stop of light to compensate for the filter, and then it’s just 1/125 & F/11 or permutations thereof all the way.

Mamiya 645 Pro TL / Ilford FP4 / Rodinal 1+99 for 60 minutes

The Crematorium; still in use today

After a hour or so of wandering round, I found a shady spot to eat the sandwich I had brought with me, and was thinking about catching the train home. That’s when it occurred to me that a couple of stops and about ten minutes further down the line was Crystal Palace Park.

I’d forgotten how nice Crystal Palace Station is, and at the risk of being mistaken for a train geek, I took a quick snap. To be honest, when you spend a sunny Saturday hanging round a cemetery, people thinking you’re a train spotter is the least of your worries.

Wikipedia describes Crystal Palace Park as a Victorian pleasure park, which I think is a lovely turn of phrase. The district of Crystal Palace takes its name from the building –The Crystal Palace – in which the Great Exhibition of 1851 was held. Yet the exhibition wasn’t held in Crystal Palace; it was held in Hyde Park in central London. Confused? Don’t be.

The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations (phew) was conceived as a celebration of modern industrial technology and design. It was an attempt to show the rest of the world how Britain was a clear leader in industry, and in the process stick two fingers up to the French after their highly successful Industrial Exposition of 1844. Plus ça change. After the exhibition, between 1852 and 1855, the park was created as a home for the relocated and rebuilt Crystal Palace, but tragically the building was destroyed by fire in 1936, leaving just the few remnants you can see from the photos.

That’s the Crystal Palace TV Transmitter in the background. 719 feet and the fifth tallest structure in London.

There’s plenty to see and do in the park. The boating lake. A maze. The famous Crystal Palace Dinosaurs – a series of extinct (and often inaccurate) animal sculptures that date from 1852. But it was the sphinxes that really drew me here on this day. It was about twelve years ago now, on my only previous visit to the park, that I sat beneath them holding the hand of a pretty red-headed girl with a kind heart. I’ve no idea what’s happened in her life since then, but a few years back I was surprised to be told she now lives just a couple of miles away from me. I keep that little bit of information wrapped up and tucked away at the back of my mind, but occasionally I take it out, just to see how it feels.

There are six sphinxes in all , and they’ve been there ever since the site was moved from central London in the 1850s. What surprised me however, is that they are now in much better condition than when I last saw them. And as you clearly can’t see from the photo, they’ve been painted terracotta. I’ve since found out they were restored last year, and analysis has shown that they were regularly painted up until about 1900, after which they gradually started to fall in to disrepair.

This dude was happy to ham it up for the camera.

And in the middle of the park, at the sports centre, they were playing beach volleyball. I took the photo just so I can tell people that I did indeed have a lovely day at the seaside, and no, I didn’t waste a glorious weekend wallowing in nostalgia and gravestones.

Margate

Margate has been a seaside resort for over 200 years, but like so many coastal towns these days, it’s pretty run down. Nevertheless I love the tackiness and nostalgia of the seaside, and when I was asked to go down for the soul festival last weekend on what turned out to be one of the hottest days of the year, I jumped at the chance.

The Margate Soul Festival consists of a deck full of DJs setting up in various locations in the old town and harbour. Chuck in an equal measure of dancing and drinking and things start to hot up. I know from previous experience that it all gets a bit hectic, and camera-wise I wanted to travel light. The Nikon F90x is always my first choice when things get a up bit close and personal, so that went in the back of the car.

As it turned out, what didn’t go in the back of the car was any 35mm film. Despite being a laid-back guy, this is the sort of thing that can almost annoy me. What I did find however was my Mamiya 645, left there from a trip out the day before. Now this really did annoy me, because I’m never normally so careless as to leave one of my precious cameras in the car overnight. The good news was that there was film with it. The bad news – just two rolls of medium format FP4. That’s a mere 30 frames at 645, not a great deal for a full day and night.

The only thing the F90 and the Mamiya have in common is the ability to kill someone with a single whack round the head. Other than that they are the complete antithesis of each other. Where the Nikon is fast and easy to handle, the Mamiya is heavy, ponderous, and the last camera you’d ever consider for in-your-face fast moving candid shots. So I thought about what I should do. Ration the film and take a few shots every hour? Take a load of stationary seascape shots? In the end I just decided to photograph the first 30 things that caught my eye, sling the camera back in the car and enjoy the rest of the day and evening. And that turned out to be the right thing to do. Although I try my best not to let my need to document get in the way of fun, sometimes it’s good to just not have the choice.

Mamiya 645 Pro TL / Ilford FP4 / Rodinal 1+99 60 minutes

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Richard’s Bicycle Book

Richard’s Bicycle Book was my bible when I was a teenager. This was a time before cyclists flew round the streets in soulless tinted-goggled packs. As the cover says, this is a manual primarily of enjoyment. There was no need for state of the art gear or comical, overpriced clothing. You just pulled on a pair of jeans and a chunky jumper, and off you’d go. When you felt like it you could stop for a pint or a roll-up 1. Riding a bike was Richard’s way of combatting disaffection with modern life and the alienating effects of cars. “Now look at what happens to you on a bicycle,” he wrote. “It’s immediate and direct. You pedal. You make decisions. You experience the tang of the air and the surge of power as you bite into the road. You’re vitalised. As you hum along, you fully and gloriously experience the day, the sunshine, the clouds, the breezes. You’re alive!” I do sometimes feel that these days the only thing the typical street cyclist experiences is the lycra-clad buttocks of the dude in front of him. But each to their own.

Yashica Mat 124G with Rolleinar 2 / Kodak Tri-X / Rodinal 1+99 60 minutes
Sadly not my original copy; I don’t know what happened to that. This is the revised 1983 edition that I bought secondhand a few years back

In the summer of 1983 I was 16 and preparing to sit my ‘O’ Levels. Back then there was much talk about the unfairness of five years of work being measured on a single three hour exam, and the Board decided to include additional forms of assessment. For me and my English Language exam, that meant having to give a presentation on a subject of choice to my classmates. I was an idealistic hippie back then, and as my friend Suzie often tells me, I still am. Inspired by Richard and his ecological ideas, my talk was about the building of extensive cycle paths and the banning of cars from city centres, with free bikes available for anyone to borrow.

Fast forward 30 years or so and things haven’t worked out quite how I’d hoped. To be fair though, if you’d asked me in 1983 how I honestly thought we’d be getting round in 2016, I would have said personal jet packs. Nevertheless, there has been quite a bit of progress. In 1984 the Bristol and Bath Railway Path was opened. This is a 15 mile cycle path on a disused railway, and was the first part of what was to become the National Cycle Network. The NCN now comprises around 15000 miles of signed cycle routes. Not a great deal of this is on dedicated cycleways, but the aspiration has been to minimise contact with motor traffic through the use of pedestrian routes, disused railways, minor roads, canal towpaths and traffic-calmed routes in towns and cities. All the routes should be suitable for an unsupervised 12 year old.

As it happens NCN 4 runs right by my front door. A couple of miles down the road road it meets up with the Thames Path, a national trail that runs alongside the Thames, much of which can be cycled. These photos are from a few weeks back and my first cycle ride along it this summer.

Mamiya 645 Pro TL / Ilford FP4 / Rodinal 1+99 60 minutes


A few miles from my house along the Thames Path the tow path peters out. Enter the Shepperton Ferry. There’s been a ferry across the Thames from Shepperton for around 500 years, even being famously mentioned in the 1897 HG Wells novel War of the Worlds. These days it’s operated by this small skiff and crossings are every 15 minutes.


When I got to Hampton Court I took a short detour from the river over to Bushy Park, which I thought would be a good spot to eat my sandwiches. And I ran right in to what turned out to be the annual Chestnut Parade. I’ve still no idea what it’s in aid of, but nevertheless it was very enjoyable.


On the way back, for variety I headed home along the road rather than the tow path. This was nowhere near so interesting, but it did give me the chance to look around St Mary’s Church in Sunbury.


1. [Thinking about it, I’m not entirely sure that’s in the book. It might have just been me.]