Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Snow on Wimbledon Common

Last night the first snow flakes of the season fell over southwest London. Could we soon witness the same scenes as in January this year, when a thick carpet covered Wimbledon Common and Putney Heath for several days?

This vast expanse of open land between Putney, Wimbledon and Kingston-upon-Thames, which is enjoyed by thousands of visitors every week was almost lost when Earl Spencer, Lord of the Manor of Wimbledon, proposed in 1864 to enclose about two thirds as a park and sell the remaining third as building land. Fortunately after several years of conflict with local residents a settlement was reached and in 1871 Parliament passed the Wimbledon and Putney Commons Act. Under the terms of the Act, a new body of eight Conservators took over from Earl Spencer. They are charged with the duty of keeping the Commons open, unenclosed, unbuilt on and their natural aspect preserved. In compensation Earl Spencer and his descendants received £1,200 a year. However this yearly payment stopped in 1968 after a lump sum was paid.

Near the centre of the Common stands its most famous structure: the windmill. This hollow post mill was built by Charles March in 1817 and worked until 1864, when it was purchased by Earl Spencer. By then the windmill was being operated by John Marsh, whose family owned several mills around Kingston. When Marsh sold it, he insisted the machinery should be dismantled and the grinding stones removed to prevent any competition. As a result the building was converted into cottages for six families. In any case, this suited Earl Spencer, who hoped to diffuse opposition to his project of converting the commons into parkland and building a new manor house near the site of the windmill: people would be less likely to resist if they had already lost a major asset.
By the time the windmill came into the care of the Conservators it was in a very poor state. Major repairs were carried in the late nineteenth century and again in the 1950s and 1960s. By 1974 it had become clear it was no longer suitable for living and the decision was taken to restore it and convert it into a museum. It opened two years later and offers a comprehensive overview of the history of the Wimbledon windmill and of different milling methods. Several models also chart the development of windmills throughout the ages.

Most of the £1 m budget needed to manage the Commons comes from a levy added to the council tax paid by residents living within three quarters of a mile of the Commons or in the old parish of Putney. The amount varies according to the tax band but is a small price for the privilege of living within minutes of such a beautiful open space.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Wat Long Khoun, Luang Prabang

The sim, or congregation hall, of the monastery

On a wooded hill across the Mekong from Luang Prabang, in northern Laos, stands Wat Long Khoun, the Monastery of the Blessed Song. This spiritual retreat, founded in the eighteenth century, is closely associated with the city's and country's history. Indeed it was customary for the future kings of Luang Prabang to come here and spend three days in meditative retreat and ceremonial bathing before descending the long flight of steps leading to the river and boarding a boat to cross the Mekong to Wat Xieng Thong, the city's most prestigious monastery, on the eve of their coronation.

View across the Mekong towards Luang Prabang

Several guide books on Laos claim this tradition dates back to the rulers of the kingdom of Lane Xang Hom Khao (literally 'One Million Elephants under a White Parasol'). However this is not the case as the kingdom of Lane Xang, which was established in 1354 after Fa Ngum put an end to Khmer domination over the middle Mekong valley, collapsed following the death of King Suriyavongsa in 1695. Internal feuds over the succession and successive Burmese invasions led to the breaking up of Lane Xang and in 1707 Luang Prabang became the capital of one of three rival kingdoms, the others being Vientiane and Champassak. As there is no evidence that a monastery existed on the site of Wat Long Khoun before that date, the custom must have been established by the first ruler of that new kingdom, King Kitsarat (1707-1713) or, more likely, one of his succeessors. Albeit formally independent the Kingdom of Luang Prabang was forced to pay tribute to its more powerful neighbours, be they Chinese, Siamese or Burmese, until 1887, when it became a French protectorate within French Indochina. The French maintained the monarchy and kings-to-be continued to retreat to Wat Long Khoun to meditate before their accession to the throne.

The original part of the sim with two of the monastery's that or stupas

The oldest structure of the monastery, dating back to the eighteenth century, is the rear part of the sim or congregation hall, where monks, laymen and members of the public meet and meditate. It faces east in the auspicious direction of the rising sun. The rather small structure was enlarged in 1937 by King Sisavang Vong, who added a front porch. This porch rests on eigth black and gold columns with capitals in the shape of lotus petals. Its red ceiling is covered with stencilled dharma wheels, lions, monkeys, peacocks, butterflies, bats, birds and mythical animals.

The porch now shelters two unusual Chinese bearded figures in elaborate military outfits who stand guard by the sculpted entrance to the sim proper. The hilt of their sword rises above their shoulders, ready to be drawn. However their severe appearance is softened by the elegant position of their hands, one of which holds a handkerchief. The subtle folds seem to indicate these were made of silk rather than cloth. It has been suggested they could represent Haw warriors but one would expect to find protective figures rather than bandits that brought devastation to the region. Coming from Yunnan in China, much-feared Haw forces reached Luang Prabang in the mid-1870s and again in the early 1880s.

The interior of the sim is dominated by the monastery's main image of the Buddha. Here he is represented in the posture of Calling the Earth Goddess to Witness or Bhumisparsamudra. The west wall, behind the statue, is decorated with images of the Buddha, lotus flowers, and a frieze stencilled in silver on a red background. On the upper part of the wall, rows of niches containing small gilded images of the Buddha have been carved.

However it is the beautiful Lao style jataka murals that decorate the north and south walls that really catch one's imagination.

The jataka tales relate the 547 previous lives of the Buddha, before he was born as Prince Siddhartha Gaumata and achieved enlightment. They capture the moral evolution, inner strength and pursuit of virtue of the Buddha and emphasize the importance of the act of giving, the most important virtue in Buddhism. As it is often the case in Laos, the murals also incorporate local legends and folklore.

Vandalism by revolutionaries in the mid-1970s and then dampness caused extensive damage to the murals. Indeed following the victory of the Pathet Lao and the proclamation of the Lao People's Democratic Republic in 1975, Wat Long Khoun was abandonned for several years and fell into disrepair. Monks were allowed to return only after the Communist regime re-embraced Buddhism in the 1980s.

The murals, together with the rest of the monastery, were carefully restored in 1994 by the École Française d’Extrême Orient and the Lao Department of Museums and Archeology. Yet the high degree of humidity during part of the year takes its toll and the murals would require almost constant attention.

The elaborately decorated window shutters, with gold figures on black, suffered even more than the murals. The one below could represent Rama, the prince from Ayodhya and hero of the Ramayana. This Hindu epic story reached Laos via Siam and was adapted to the local context. Many figures from the Ramayana are represented in Lao sims. Similar shutters can be found at Wat That Luang on the other bank of the Mekong.

Apart from the sim, Wat Long Khoun includes a whole variety of buildings spread over 1.5 hectares. Most were restored if not partly rebuilt in 1994. Six are kuti or living quarters for the monks, where the veranda and rooms on the upper levels are reached by earlier masonry stairs.

These wooden structures, built in different styles, rest on brick pillars.

Luang Prabang has many fantastic monuments but with its amazing sim, serene atmosphere, and beautiful views over the Mekong and surrounding mountains, Wat Long Khoun is certainly one of my favourites.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Churchyard watch huts, Warblington

The enlarged northwest watch hut

Near the entrances to the churchyard of St Thomas à Beckett in Warblington, Hampshire, are two curious little buildings. These are watch huts built in 1828 to shelter the men employed to guard the churchyard against body snatchers.

At the time, the only corpses medical and anatomical schools could obtain legally were those of criminals sentenced to death and dissection by the courts. However by the early nineteenth century demand rapidly outstripped supply as new medical schools opened across the country and the courts were passing far less death sentences than in the eighteenth century, when even a petty crime could lead to the gallows. The result was an imbalance of ten to one. Since these schools needed fresh corpses for their teaching and were ready to pay good money to get some, body snatching became a lucrative business, with relatively low risks. Provided they hadn't taken any belonging from the dead, such as jewellery, body snatchers only faced a fine or imprisonment as stealing a corpse was only a misdemeanour and not a felony. Additionally the authorities considered this to be an unavoidable evil if medical knowledge were to progress and often turned a blind eye.
However the general public and church authorities became extremely worried and took different actions to prevent recently deceased parishioners from being dug up from their graves. Relatives of the deceased would keep watch over the grave for several days, until the corpse was too decomposed to be of much value. Those wealthy enough would pay for a heavier table tombtone, install railings around the grave, or bury the dead in a vault or a mausoleum. Such was the despair of some families that they would ask undertakers to soak the body in vinegar or ammonia to make it unusable by professors and students. In 1816 the first mortsafes -extremely heavy iron and stone cages- appeared in churchyards near the Scottish medical schools of Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen. Throughout Britain groups of volunteers were set up to protect the churchyards at night and in several places church authorities actually paid watchmen to keep an eye on the graves.

With only a couple of buildings in the proximity of the churchyard, pasture-land all around and the waters of Chichester Harbour not far away, Warblington was certainly a good spot for body snatchers. Most of the parish inhabitants lived in Emsworth, a thriving little town two kilometres to the east, but burials still took place at St Thomas à Beckett as the chapel of ease built there in 1789 did not have burial rights until well into the nineteenth century. Coffins had to be carried or brought by cart along a footpath to be buried at Warblington. A few more houses were located along the Porstmouth-Chichester road, to the north of the original settlement.
How many corpses were stolen from Warblington is something I have not found but the problem must have been serious enough for the church to build two watch huts: one in the northwest corner of the churchyard, by the main entrance, the other next to the east entrance. Originally both buildings were similar: a square structure of flint and red brick quoins with a pyramidal slate roof. The door and windows have pointed heads, giving them a distinctive -and more attractive- appearance. Each hut also had a central fireplace. Needless to say, the watchmen certainly appreciated the warmth of the fire during the long, cold and wet nights. The light might have discouraged some from entering the churchyard as well. The northwest hut was enlarged at some point and the fireplace removed in the process.

The watch huts remained in use until Parliament passed the Anatomy Act 1832, which regulated medical reseach establishments and made it easier for them to obtain corpses, which were no longer spoilt by earth and other elements. Actually the Act was passed because of growing public outrage, especially after several people were murdered by Burke and Hare in Edinburgh and the London Burkers in Shoreditch, who sold the fresh bodies for a higher price. After 1832, people could donate their bodies to science -although in practice not many did- and for a fixed amount, medical schools could buy unclaimed dead bodies, in particular from prisons or workhouses. Poor Law Guardians welcome the move as it provided an additional income and several medical faculties established close links with them in order to get a relatively regular supply of corpses. As a result, the despicable practice of body snatching came to an end.

Nowadays few churchyard watch huts still survive. This makes the two at Warblington all the more special.

The east watch hut

Monday, 1 November 2010

Wangfujing Dajie (2): Dong An Bazaar

Above one of the entrances of the Sun Dong An shopping mall is a reproduction of a late 1910s engraving depicting the old Dong An Bazaar, a reminder of what was during the first half of the twentieth century one of the main attractions of Wangfujing Dajie, and Beijing's greatest market.

The transformation of Wangfujing Dajie in the early twentieth century (see previous post) affected some of the surrounding streets. Dong'anmen Dajie in particular, which runs between the commercial street and the Dong An (or Donghua - East Prosperity) Gate of the Forbidden City, was also improved. Over the years many small vendors had established themselves along this street. When work started in 1902, the authorities relocated them to a former military ground at the junction of Wangfujing Dajie and Jinyu Hutong. This site rapidly became one of Beijing's most important markets and large crowds flocked to Wangfujing Dajie on a daily basis to buy a wide selection of goods or sample some of the food on offer. Until then fairs were held in and around temples at important religious festivals but there was no permanent market in the Chinese capital. Needless to say, the establishment of the Dong An Bazaar, as the market was called, filled a need.
In 1912 a fire devastated the market. Soon after a brand new structure, inspired by modern market halls and department stores found in Europe and North America at the time, rose from the ashes. Under the glass roofs supported by steel and iron columns and in the shops, customers could find nearly everything, from rare and expensive jewelry, antiques, paintings, and second-hand books (some of the finest pieces came from the Imperial Palace and the mansions of the nobility ransacked after the fall of the Qing dynasty) to clothes, shoes, hats, flowers, medicines, or even goldfish. Cheaper goods and food from all parts of China could be bought in the open air sections of the market. Barbers, dentists or photographers also offered their services within its walls. Thanks to the heterogeneity of goods and services available at all prices and to the good reputation of the sellers, Chinese and foreigners from all walks of life gathered at Dong An Bazaar.
The range of entertainment available at Dong An Bazaar also attracted many people. For a few coins acrobats, jugglers and magicians would amuse the crowds. In the afternoon, groups of singers performed in the different tea houses while drums could be heard later in the day. Yet two of the most popular venues were the Huixian Billiard Club, located within the Bazaar itself, and the Jixiang theatre, next to its entrance. The latter showed Beijing opera as well as western movies.

Following the victory of the Communists in 1949, shops and stalls selling products considered unsuitable or whose owners had supported the Nationalists were closed. Although its activity was declining Dong An Bazaar remained for a few more year a very busy place. However the expulsion of all foreigners in 1954 was a severe blow to the market and the shops found along Wanfujing Dajie. Two years later the government nationalized the many small-scale enterprises running the shops and stalls and converted Dong An Bazaar into a state company selling Chinese goods at a fixed price. By the late 1950s, because of the failures of the Great Leap Forward, Dong An Bazaar became a shadow of itself. As production collapsed and food rationing was introduced many of its stalls laid desperately empty. During the Cultural Revolution, launched by Mao in 1966, the name was changed to Dong Feng (East Wind) Market as the reference to the eastern gate of the Forbidden City was considered to be counter-revolutionary. The death of Mao in 1976, which put an end to the Cultural Revolution, and the launch by Deng Xiaoping of the Open Door policy in 1978 failed to revive the good fortunes of Dong An Bazaar. As low quality good continued to be sold in its outdated facilities, shoppers deserted it in favour of other venues in Beijing.

By the late 1980s the Beijing authorities opened the Chinese real estate market to overseas investors. This was followed in the early 1990s by the opening of the retail sector. Around the same time the municipality decided to revamp Wangfujing Dajie and turn the area into the front window of modernity in the capital. One of the first projects selected was the complete redevelopment of the site of the Dong An Bazaar at a cost of US$300m. In October 1993 the old glass, iron and steel structure was demolished to make way for a twelve-storey shopping complex financed equally by state-owned Dong An Group and Sun Hung Kai Properties of Hong Kong. When Sun Dong An (New Dong An Market) opened its doors in 1998 it was the largest shopping centre in Beijing. Even though its designers have included a few glazed-tile roofs and red-lacquer columns, this is sadly another post-modern mall, like so many around the world...

Click on the image above to enlarge it.
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