16/10/2012

THE CREMORNE PLEASURE GARDENS...

The Dancing Platform at Cremorne Gardens  - by Phoebus Levin, 1864


Between 1845 and 1877 many fashionable - and many disreputable - Victorians would have enjoyed the delights of the Cremorne Pleasure Gardens. 

Once situated on the banks of The Thames, between Chelsea Harbour and the King's Road, today very little remains of the gardens' original splendour - only a restored pair of ornate gates and a strip of ground near to Cheyne Walk, along with two jetties where boats once moored to deposit all those who arrived on The Thames.




For the entrance fee of one shilling, London's grimy streets could be left behind to stroll at one's leisure across green lawns, past elaborate fountains and a lake, while shaded by elegant elm trees.




A circus was later converted into a permanent theatre with burlesques, ballets, even operas, or - as described in a scene from the VV's novel, Elijah's Mermaid, a daring act of aquatic prowess where men clad in nothing but 'fleshings and drawers' performed feats in a large glass aquarium as -


'...  each of us ‘oohed’ and ‘aahed’ with glee when presented with ‘The Beckwith Frog … one of the world’s finest acrobats’, who dived into the water, gyrating among all the goldfish and eels, or else walked back and forth on his hands while consuming a bottle of milk in one – all the time with his head completely submerged!'





Professer Beckwith also gave lessons promoting his sport at the Lambeth Swimming Club, so any who happened to be inspired could take the plunge and dive right in - perhaps even auditioning for the act. 

But, while still enjoying a day at Cremorne, the audience could leave his show and visit the Hermit Cave, or get lost in the maze or the fairy bower or, if their appetites were up, dine in the glamorous banqueting hall. While sipping from a cup of tea, or a glass of sherry or lemonade, they could relax in loungers which were set beside the Pagoda, and enclosed in this elegant 'Chinese' construction musicians would play all the popular tunes while couples whirled around them upon a circular dance stand.




By day children enjoyed the fun, while men politely tipped their hats to respectable women walking by. Later, when evening and darkness fell, the pagoda and trees would be glittering with thousands of little gas lights - a circle of shimmering crystal.




There were firework displays, and a hot air balloon to rise above the spectacle. But like moths being lured around a flame, a decadent crowd flew in at night. Many Londoners abandoned their prudery to play on 'Satan's hornpipe', partaking in nocturnal delights of a decidedly adult kind. As the clamour and numbers of prostitutes grew so the gardens' reputation reduced until, after many earnest complaints from neighbours in the area, Cremorne was finally closed down - its glories and al fresco fun now no more than a distant memory.




04/10/2012

THE GHOST AT KINGSLAND RECTORY...



The VV often visits the village of Kingsland in Herefordshire. Some of her family still live there, and she spent many happy childhood days wandering past the black-and-white houses, set next to grander Georgian stone, and the later Victorian red brick homes with their little front gardens and black iron railings dividing front paths from the pavement edge.

The house that is pictured above on the left, with its ivy-smothered windows and walls, was once the village rectory. The VV has never been inside and these days it is privately owned, but it has always held some sense of allure and now takes on a life of its own in the pages of Elijah's Mermaid, the VV's second Victorian novel.




At the side of the house is a public walkway that leads to a path through a meadow, and then beyond a 'kissing gate' to enter the village church yard - presumably the very route that the local rectors used to take.

However, turn right at the house's back boundary and, rather than heading across the field, you may well find a little stream almost hidden by shrubs and low branches of trees to form a natural barrier between the gardens and pasture land.

The VV has always been drawn to that stream and in Elijah's Mermaid, she has re-imagined its path as being somewhat larger  - a place where two orphaned children who are living with their grandfather love to spend their days in play and, after reading The Water Babies written by Charles Kingsley, to try and catch such a creature inside the trap of a jam jar.


Woman by a stream, from The London Illustrated News, 1875 


But in the local village lore, although no water babies were ever caught, there is talk of something sinister inhabiting the water - a story that tells how, on still dark nights, the cries of a wailing child can be heard.

The origin of the 'haunting' is said to stem back to the time when a village rector lived in the house with only his daughter for company. The local gossips would have it that the girl appeared to be with child, with all manner of aspersions cast as to who the father might happen to be. However, no child was ever seen and the scandalmongers tongues were stilled - until the night when a poacher was walking along the banks of the stream, when he heard the cries of a mewling babe and, on further investigation, was shocked to discover a tiny corpse.

In the tradition of these things, it is still said to this very day that if you walk past the stream at night you might also hear the cries of the child who was either born or concealed in the water; abandoned there and left to drown. And now, in Elijah's Mermaid, the VV has made her own allusion to this tragic story and, hopefully, to have laid the ghost of whatever it is that cries at night.