So long, and thanks for all the fish*

*(Fourth book of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy trilogy)

While browsing the blogs, I came across a post from the Manchester based “Fishink”, reminiscing about the married illustrators from Chicago, Dale and Betty Maxey. I knew of Dale from his lovely 1966 children’s book, “Seeing London”.Going back to my old copy, I realised that as a child I had never visited the Jewel Tower, probably because it is small and out of the way, a remnant of the 14th Century Great Palace of Westminster.

Dale writes: “When I visited the Jewel Tower I found a delightful fourteenth Century moat on two sides. And this moat was full of rainbow trout and goldfish. This unexpected sight is probably one of the most charming and least-known of Westminster’s many attractions.”

Unexpectedly, I found that today the moat is merely a dry ditch. The friendly young woman selling tickets (well, there is one other visitor) confides wryly that the moat was drained in 1992 when a slight leak made itself felt in the car park of the House of Lords, which lies beneath the Jewel Tower.

My pal Uncle Dale (the Maxeys had no children of their own) invites my child self to: “Explore its tiny rooms, its dark, narrow connecting staircases as much as you will.” As I negotiate the spiral staircase, I reflect that he may never have been in sole charge of one or more little darlings in these conditions. Tripadvisor indeed.

My reckless interpretation of a Tripadvisor entry (“a solid portion of the exhibit is recreated or modelled”) led me to hunt fruitlessly for imitation gems. When I returned to ground level, a man of greater dignity, if not rank, had joined the young woman at the desk. He responded a touch testily to my enquiry on the fake Jewel question with: “English Heritage would never engage in something so speculative.” Oops.

The Fishink blog has informed me that, while in London, the Maxeys lived at Abingdon Villas, Kensington. (When in New York, they resided in the Riverdale district of the Bronx.) This is a bit of a coincidence, because although it lies half a dozen stops on the Circle Line away, the Jewel Tower’s address is Abingdon Street. The Abingdon-Kensington link is clearly explained by the Oxford Mail:

“The links between the two councils go back to the early 1100s when the large Benedictine Abbey of Abingdon was a power in the land.

The Abbot Faritius had medical knowledge and treated Geoffrey de Vere, eldest son of Aubrey de Vere, who held the manor of Kensington.

He was taken to Abingdon for treatment but died. Before his death he granted the Abbot his church and some land in Kensington, although the deeds were lost when the monasteries were dissolved under Henry VIII.”

(John Steane, in an article for Oxoniensia, “The Abingdon Monks’ Map” notes:

“The pittancer’s account of 1322-3 makes reference to the purchase of fish for stocking the fishpond (ad vivarium instaurandum), and the kitchener’s account mentions a payment for cleansing the fishpond (pro vivario mundando) before 1377.)

I’m less clear about the Abingdon-Westminster link; perhaps some early twinning.

In a moment of nostalgia, and back in the speculative world, I make for London W8 to see where Dale and Betty once lived. “Their” block of flats dates from 1902, and has features of the Arts -and -Crafts influence. Apparently, these flats were built with 2-3 reception rooms and 3-5 bedrooms apiece. At the door I see a brass plate advertising the Porter’s bell.

At a neighbouring entrance, a young boy in football kit is enunciating into the entryphone, “Hello, it’s Tarquin.” I take it all back; I’m sure Tarquin would know just how to behave on an ancient spiral staircase.

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