Tuesday, 11 July 2017

20 Fenchurch's Sky Garden: International Airport meets Garden City


Welcome to Gate 20: Fenchurch Airport...?

Last week I finally visited the Sky Garden on Fenchurch Street, popularly known as the Walkie Talkie, also famous for being That Building Which Fried Eggs on Telly and Melted a Jaguar. (Commenting on the accidental "death ray" produced by the building, the architect of the Walkie Talkie Rafael Viñoly admitted, "We made a lot of mistakes with this building"...)



Towering over the conservation area with its obscene light-concentrating bulge of mirror and glass is the skyscraper known as 20 Fenchurch. One of the conditions allowing the building's erection in this highly vaunted area was that the building would also contain a rooftop park that would be accessible to the public.

Although it is a so-called "public garden", the space has remained highly controlled by the developers. It might be public in the sense that everyone is free to come up and enjoy the sky garden, but first you'll have to know how to navigate to this website to book your ticket. Next, there are hourly slots you can book, but these are often hard to come by and basically have to be booked way in advance - a few days in advance or in reality a few weeks in advance.

In fact, the main reason why I had not gone to the sky garden earlier was that I never was able to find an amenable slot in the past...




What's curious is that this "public" garden is really still run as if it were a "private" garden or secret club. If you go to the Sky Garden's free booking website, it welcomes you to "London's Highest Public Garden" in its header, followed almost immediately by a description of the sky garden as one of "London’s most exclusive social spaces". Erm...

The result of this booking system is that confused punters who didn't realise you have to pre-book online are usually turned away at the door, and the queues at the doors downstairs also tend to accumulate as groups of people turn up too early or too late for their bookings. Apparently that if it gets too crowded upstairs they could round up visitors and ask them to leave after their hour has passed - although that did not happen whilst we were there. In any case the rooftop is extremely spacious and apparently has a capacity for 200 roaming visitors (ie: people just coming for the view and not visiting any of the dining establishments).

They keep a tight rein on the number of people allowed to go up at any one time, so it remains relatively spacious and never overcrowded; which I must admit was quite unusual. The mood upstairs on the sky garden remained relaxed and calm, and it was not chaotic, screamy, and unbearably overpacked as many other 'sky gardens' I've been to this year (ie: Singapore's MBS Skypark, Melbourne's Skydeck 88).

But this comes at the expense of the ease of access. There's something to be said for that element of unplanned chaos that brings a space to life, an organic sense of community life which has been carefully removed from the Sky Garden. Security guards stood in a line, watching silently to make sure no one threw stuff from the balcony. Cleaners stood at attention, meticulously sweeping up any visible rubbish, leaving every surface spotlessly clean. This was not a place you could visit spontaneously or on the whim of a moment. We had the luxury of having booked several weeks in advance and also the luxury of being available to go at a weird time slot of 1.30pm on a weekday - which might not be possible for everyone, and many other time slots simply seemed impossible to book because of the limited slots available.

When you place your booking, they'll also want your name - it is written that you'll need to bring some ID, although they don't seem to check IDs at the door, and you'll be run through an airport scanner for safety reasons. After your tickets have been checked and your bags have been scanned, its no wonder that since it opened in 2015, many (unfavourable) comparisons have been made to it being more like an airport terminal and less like a public garden or park.


However, just as how generic Canary Wharf-like places in London have always reminded me of Singapore, the Sky Garden also feels uncannily familiar. Like much of the central part of Singapore, Sky Garden's aesthetic lies somewhere between "International Airport" and "Garden City".


Its that uncanny feeling of "homeliness" that comes with suddenly recognising a generic EXPEDIT Ikea shelf whilst visiting another person's home in another country.


To their credit, it appears that since 2015 they've clearly worked on the garden, with the tall sprinklers strategically delivering misty jets of hydration on a lush hill of tropical foliage. But its still just a mere vertical garden, an afterthought to hard steel and glass.

As for the comestibles available at the summit: I'm actually glad to say they've exercised some restraint in their pricing at the cafe and bar; a cookie is about 2 quid, a slice of cake is about 5 quid, and a pint of Heineken goes for a reasonable price of 5.50. As city prices go, I've probably had more expensive, so the one small comfort is that it is not an excessive price-gouge. (Either that or you could say London has now rendered me mad in thinking 5.50 is a good price for a pint in the City..)



Tuesday, 4 July 2017

The Impossiblity of grave-hunting in Abney Park Cemetery


Recently I attempted to go headstone hunting or grave hunting in Abney Park Cemetery after noticing there were many requests for people to find the grave sites - from descendants who no longer lived in the UK. There were so many plaintive requests for photos of lost memorials. I wondered why no one had helped these people with their requests for photos, and I thought I'd try to do this over the weekend, for just an hour or two. You know, just head on to Abney one afternoon and FIND ALL THE GRAVES. Fulfill a photo request. Or two. Or three.... Or a hundred and eighty five?


At first when I scrolled down the list I thought it would be a piece of cake to help search for the graves. There didn't seem so many when you're just speed scrolling through the names. But when I tried to copy out the data, I realised there were actually a whopping total of 185 requests. This was more than I had expected in terms of a number. 185 individuals had clicked on this site wanting to find a specific grave for a specific person in this cemetery. And these were just the people who knew where the memorials were located in the cemetery. I mean, from a brief glance, I had thought there were just a few dozen requests online, but not 185 requests. Perhaps I was out of my depth trying to attempt to fulfill all 185 requests. It sounded like a tall order to photograph, let alone locate 185 graves in an afternoon. But every name was a person, and how could I miss a single name on the list?

As I copied out the names, I began to develop the illusion that this was not a world so far away. I knew the area and the roads of Stoke Newington like the back of my hand, I had already read a lot about the local history, I could imagine the roads and places and houses and the work and lives that went on inside them; certain surnames resurfaced many times like Wood, Woods, Watts, Loomes, Levesque,... as I copied the names out I began to imagine I could understand how this cemetery worked, but that was definitely just some weird kind of survivorship bias...


For some reason I erroneously had the number "40,000" in my head - I thought there were 40,000 people buried in Abney Park's 12.53 hectares (31.0 acres). I realise now that I thought this because I must have seen this signboard stating that there were 40,000 headstones still remaining. But the real number of burials in Abney Park is actually well over 200,000 at this point! I was surprised by this density. For my own reference I went to google the size of one of Singapore's oldest cemeteries, Bukit Brown, which occupies about 85 hectares (211 acres) and is said to house "over 100,000 graves". The British Isle Genealogy website keeps an online index of the 194,815 burials that took place in Abney Park from 1840 to 1978. 185 out of the 194,815 graves tabulated in 1978 in a time before I was even born - that makes a mere 0.09496188691 % of the graves there at Abney. Alas, 'twere nothing but an illusion of understanding the sheer volume of graves at Abney....


After tediously copying out and cross referencing the lost graves and memorials onto a section map I made my way down to Abney. By the way, if anyone wants a copy of my list, here is the google doc: Abney Park Cemetery Photo Requests



I was instantly overwhelmed and completely thwarted by thick overgrowth. It was not even possible to go beyond the second or third row of graves in a section unless I wanted to step on countless gravestones which had fallen over. Now I always knew it was thick in there, but until you attempt to match a name to a grave in a specific section, you may not fully appreciate how many graves there are!


There were Commonwealth war graves at this cemetery - instantly recognisable from afar - now that I've visited many Commonwealth war memorials...




Because the war graves were standardised through the war graves commission, I always knew what I was looking at when I saw a war grave.


But graves come in all shapes...


in all formats...


in all sizes....


Some are very wordy...


Some get straight to the point...


Many are standing (or falling over) in all sorts of different angles...

I have a newfound respect for gravehunting as it is extremely difficult. In fact, I think it is entirely impossible. George also said I shouldn't just go around the cemetery "randomly" shrieking out names as I was looking for them.




"Could Henry Vale be in there?"


"Or is Henry Vale in there?"


"Ada Wincup? Is that your headstone?"


"Mary Wood? Is your stone somewhere in there?"

When people post a request for a photo of a grave, it is probably because:

- the grave stone no longer exists
- the grave stone cannot be found within the cemetery due to overgrowth
- the grave stone is broken or in pieces (sad but common sight)
- the text on the grave stone was too worn to read
- the location provided was wrong
- the surname provided was wrong because the female had her surname changed from her maiden name to married name
- the person requesting for the photo was simply hoping for a complete miracle

Alas I cannot work miracles, and I have much respect for the countless findagrave contributors and your tireless searching for lost memorials! I could not even find a single headstone out of my list of 185! AH! I HAVE FAILED!!! But at least I tried...

And speaking of the impossibility of finding graves in Abney, its worth noting that Abney Park Cemetery is no longer a 'working' cemetery accepting new burials, so you can't find a grave plot there anymore even if you were wanting to have yourself buried there. In case you were wondering what is the cost of being buried at one of London's 'finest' such as Highgate Cemetery, it was mentioned in a Guardian article that the cost of being buried at Highgate is currently £18,325. £16,475 for the plot and £1,850 for digging. So... yep, unless you are rolling in the money, it would truly be pretty impossible to find your grave here...