Grand Days Out: Coram’s Fields

Playing on the site of the word’s first incorporated charity, in London’s first public children’s playground

It seems fitting that in a week when even more allegations have surfaced in the ongoing Jimmy Savile scandal, we should take a moment to consider the legacy of someone who worked tirelessly to advance the cause of deprived and abused children: Thomas Coram.

Plane trees in Coram’s Fields (Photo: Catherine Lawson)

On October 17th, 1739 the erstwhile sea captain and lifelong philanthropist was granted a Royal Charter by King George II to establish a “hospital for the maintenance and education of exposed and deserted young children.”

It was the culmination of a 17-year crusade. After a life at sea, Coram had returned to England a rich man, intending to retire in comfort. However, he was so appalled by the numbers of children left to die on the streets of London that he took up cudgels on their behalf.

The first abandoned babies were admitted to Coram’s Foundling Hospital in 1741 and were housed in Hatton Garden while a brand new building was constructed in Lamb’s Conduit Fields, Bloomsbury. Opened in 1745, the new hospital was a plain brick building set around an open courtyard, and it attracted high-profile supporters such as William Hogarth and composer George Frideric Handel.

The Foundling Hospital

Today, thanks to some architectural vandalism in the 1920s, all that remains of the Foundling Hospital buildings are the elegant, single-storey Georgian colonnades. They now house a city farm, children’s play centre, cafe, community nursery and youth centre. In the centre is a wide open park and playspace.

Pediment in the Georgian colonnade, Coram’s Fields
(Photo: Catherine Lawson)

The site is the product of lengthy campaigning and fundraising by local people who, with the suppport of the LCC and Viscount Rothermere, preserved the nine-acre site for future generations of children. Renamed Coram’s Fields in 1936, it was London’s first  public children’s playground.

Today, Coram’s Fields is a beautiful oasis of calm right in the centre of London. As well as the nursery and youth centre there are free (yes, that’s free) weekday sports programmes for children aged from 6 to 19, including a girls’ club aimed at getting more girls involved in sports.

If you’ve never been, take the kids and spend the day there. There are clean loos, and you can grab a cup of tea or a bite to eat at the vegetarian cafe, Kipferl (open from 10am to 5pm, March to November). Or take a picnic and sit on the grass while the kids practice their scooting on the wide paths.

The park is open all year round from 9am until dusk, and entry is free for children and young people under 16. Adults are only admitted if they’re with a child (sorry, students and office workers, but you’ll have to eat your lunchtime sarnies elsewhere), and friendly on-site staff ensure that everyone can enjoy their visit.

Coram’s Fields on a sunny day (Photo: courtesy of UCL)

There are two large playgrounds in Coram’s Fields, both of which have accessible play equipment for children of all ages. The one nearest the cafe is suitable for younger children, with smaller climbing structures and sand and/or water toys.

The adventure playground next to the city farm has some fantastic acoustic features and two aerial slides, or zip wires, which means that kids can race each other.

In the summer the grassed areas in the middle are full of families, but on a wintry weekend morning you can often find you’ve got the playgrounds to yourselves for the first hour or so.

If you’re looking for a fun, educational and cheap day out in Central London with the kids, try combining a trip to Coram’s Fields with a visit to a museum

Bloomsbury has an embarrassment of riches, after all.

Head over to The Foundling Museum in Brunswick Square to discover more about Thomas Coram and his hospital. Foundling Hospital patron Charles Dickens lived around the corner and, while the Charles Dickens House is currently closed for refurbishment (it’s due to reopen in December 2012), you can still take part in Dickens Walks every Wednesday.

Dickens’ relationship with the Foundling Museum is explored in the current exhibition, Received, a Blank Child: Dickens, Brownlow and the Foundling Hospital. The London Historians’ Blog calls it “well-curated, thoughtful and moving.”

Wander around the British Museum and then go for Korean barbecue at Bi-Won in Coptic Street. It’s child-friendly and serves great food at a reasonable price.

TVClaw Top Tip: in situ only until October 22nd, the Phantom Railings interactive sound installation in Malet Street Gardens is a fantastic piece of public art. Using sensor-based acoustic devices the installation recreates the sound produced by running a stick along an iron fence. It’s brilliant! Run, don’t walk, to experience it before it disappears.

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Are Tiny Plays The New Theatre?

Deborah Mason’s Tiny Play Festival 2012 was an absolute triumph

A capacity crowd packed out the Tea House Theatre in Vauxhall Friday night for Deborah Mason‘s Tiny Play Festival 2012. (The venue for pre- and post-theatre drinks and food was The Black Dog pub opposite, which delivered possibly the nicest service anywhere in London on a rainy Friday night.)

The inaugural Tiny Play Festival was a first for actor/producer/director Deborah with her festival organiser hat on, and was also a first for many of the featured writers (myself included).

Each of the 22 (count ’em) very short — c. 100 words or fewer — plays was fully staged with actors, props and scenery. The actors did a fantastic job with the source material, and Deborah’s inventive staging was the well-deserved hit of the night.

The scenery consisted of rolls of paper with a backdrop for each play painted on in black. So simple and so very effective. Two helpers rolled/unrolled the paper like an old-fashioned blackboard.

The subjects ranged from the Wild West to Adam and Eve via Social Media status updates. Mostly humorous, they received an overwhelmingly positive response from the crowd.

Deborah closed the Festival with an improv showstopper. The audience wrote words or snatches of phrases on cards, and  the actors picked two cards each. While they worked out how they’d run them together to make another Tiny Play, Deborah asked the crowd to choose a setting.

“Can you tell what is is yet?”

The crowd’s first choice for the setting was Tooting Lido (runner-up: “on a massive cheesepuff”), which Deborah then painted in a real Take Hart moment.

As a nod to the youngest audience members, the scene even included a massive cheesepuff in the lifeguard’s chair.

At only £7 per ticket, Tiny Play Festival was a brilliant night out. The crowd ranged in age from about 8 to 80. People were engaged, excited and entertained. A number of local small businesses made some money and attracted new customers.

We’re trying to persuade Deborah to make Tiny Play Festival a regular event, so come on Arts Council, give the woman another grant! This could be the new face of theatre in London.

Is Tiny the new black?

The Guardian and Oxford University Press are currently running a Very Short Film Competition, in which students are invited to submit 60-second films.

Microblogging continues to gain momentum, with novels being written via Twitter and Facebook. Although  none have yet made any serious money, they continue to proliferate.

Over on Twitter, the Old Vic promoted its New Voices and 24 Hour Plays programmes with popular games like the 24-word Twitter play. So, could Tiny Plays be the new theatre? Stay tuned to find out.

Follow me on Twitter: @TVClaw

The Finest Victorian Loos In London?

With pubs closing down at an alarming rate and councils running out of money to maintain public loos, the classic Victorian convenience may be on the brink of extinction.

Many have been demolished, and some have been turned into bars or nightclubs — check out Ginglik in Shepherd’s Bush, or Cellar Door in Aldwych — but a few great ones survive.

Check out my top three for The Daily Telegraph: “Where is the finest Victorian toilet in London, and can I use it?

Follow me on Twitter: @TVClaw

Open House London 2012, London Night Hike 2012

The annual chance for lovers of architecture and design to have a nose around some of the best buildings in London, Open House London 2012 is almost upon us.

From Erno Goldfinger’s house to the Apothecaries’ Hall via The Gherkin and a Barbican mews house, there’s something for everyone.

Open House London 2012 takes place on Saturday 22 September to Sunday 23 September. Check the website for listings.

The weekend kicks off with the London Night Hike 2012, which is in aid of Maggie’s Centres.

Register online now for the chance to take part in a 20- or 10-mile walking route through London and see fantastic architecture by night.

The organisers say walkers will be treated to a unique night-time insight into a variety of buildings including the Royal Festival Hall, the Royal Geographical Society, Maggie’s Centre, Horse Guards and 20 Gresham Street.

They’ll also get to ride on the London Eye for free provided they get there before 10pm.

London Night Hike 2012 starts at 7.30pm on Friday 21 September. For more information: londonnighthike@maggiescentres.org.

Follow me on Twitter: @TVClaw

London 2012 Games Canal Boat Service Folds: Water Chariots Investors Lose Out

Champagne Charlies? 

Picking up on a Guardian story from 11 September, the BBC reports that London 2012 canal boat passenger service Water Chariots is to go into administration after incurring £2.5m losses.

And a message on the firm’s website reads: “Due to events beyond our control and until further notice, we regret to announce that Water Chariots will not be taking any further bookings to travel.”

With London still basking in the Olympics afterglow the demise of Water Chariots has provoked more than a few “I told you so”s among those who’ve been monitoring the company’s progress.

Water Chariots was awarded an exclusive six-month contract to run passenger canal boat services to the Olympic Park in Stratford from Limehouse Basin and Tottenham Hale. With tickets originally priced at an eye-watering £95 — including “free” glass of champers — for adults and £50 for children, the service was swiftly dubbed “Champagne Chariots” by sceptical onlookers.

In July chief executive Bill Doughty told Loving Dalston that Water Chariots had spent £3 million on its fleet of 13 well-appointed, wheelchair-accessible barges and 17 small launches. In a statement announcing that OFLRS was being placed into administration, the firm blamed its “high fixed-cost base” for its failure.

This, despite the Canal and River Trust telling The Guardian that the company was handed the monopoly to run the service because it was deemed to have “presented a sound business plan that had significant legacy value”. Ooops.

Poor ticket sales led to Water Chariots slashing the ticket price to £20, but even that couldn’t attract enough passengers to keep the ailing service afloat. The last sailing day was 4 September, and the company admitted to the BBC that some staff have still not been paid.

Let’s not forget that before the Olympics there were plenty of people warning that the London transport system would buckle under the pressure, and so, on the face of it, a canal boat service seemed like a good idea. But really, who in their right minds thought that £95 for a 40- or 70-minute journey was a realistic price point?

Especially when Olympics ticket-holders were all given free zones 1–9 Travelcards?

From the get-go Water Chariots could not deliver on their promises. Would-be passengers were told they wouldn’t have to queue to get into the Olympic Park, and that the boats would be docking 70 metres from the Olympic Stadium entrance. A great selling point if it had actually been feasible.

In practice, tight security meant that the boats instead docked about a mile away and passengers had to disembark and walk the rest of the way.

There’s been no word yet on what the fallout will be for private company British Waterways Marinas Ltd (BWML), which was awarded a 15-year contract to use the moorings at Limehouse Basin. BWML financed the renovation of the Limehouse marina before its use by Water Chariots.

A BWML spokesman told The Guardian that “we can sell those moorings whether Water Chariots are on them or not. We were putting some investment into the site in any case.”

Follow me on Twitter: @TVClaw

Tiny Play Festival: A Showcase of New Writing for the Stage

A showcase of jewels, a tasting menu of amuse-bouches, a cabinet of miniatures…

UPDATE: Deborah Mason’s Tiny Play Festival has been awarded a richly deserved Arts Council Grant. Massive congratulations to Deborah. Onwards and upwards to greatness!

Tiny Play Festival presents the best in new writing for the stage, with a selection of short (very short, approximately 100 words long) plays.

These tiny plays will be fully performed — not just read, not just read out, but really performed, with lights, costumes, actors, scenery, maybe even sound effects and music — always with passion.

Tiny Play Festival is the brainchild of Deborah Mason, who was interested in the idea of a super-short-form play of 100 words being an art form in itself, not a snippet or extract from something else.

According to Mason, Tiny Play “provides new writers with an achievable target and aim, and the 100-word constraint itself helps with creativity. For more established writers it provides a break from the meisterwork and an opportunity to be playful.

“We have 11 writers,” she added, “some of whom have never written before, some who write professionally, and some who teach writing.”

Tiny Play Festival will feature 22 plays on a wide variety of subjects in quite different styles, from the Wild West to a bus on the Walworth Road, from Adam and Eve to Social Media status updates.

There will also be an opportunity for the audience to create their own play and engage with the work more directly in bringing that to life and seeing it performed “instantly” on the night.

Tiny Play Festival takes place on: Friday 28 September, 7.30pm, The Tea House Theatre, 139 Vauxhall Walk, London SE11 5HL.

Tickets cost £7 and are available on the door.

Come and support new drama! More information from: @tvclaw or tinyfestival@yahoo.co.uk

Tiny Play flyer – v2 A6 (1)

Follow me on Twitter: @TVClaw

TVClaw Top Tips: Visit London 2012

I’m currently writing about London for The Daily Telegraph. If you’re a Londoner or thinking of visiting London, check out the  In The Know section. Even though the 2012 Olympics are over (sob) there are still lots of fantastic things to do and see.

Here are some of my top tips for art lovers in the capital this autumn:

What are London’s top art exhibitions in November 2012? 

Where are the most famous paintings on show in London? 

Plus, if you’re just passing through, and have a few hours to kill during a layover at London Heathrow, check out my suggestions for what to do outside the airport lounge.

Follow me on Twitter: @TVClaw