Classical Landscape, with Memories…

26 December 2012
Ben Pentreath

I hope you have had a fantastic Christmas – if you’ve been celebrating. Mine was quiet, but very very happy; in London, with Mum and Dad, and my neighbour Maggie, yesterday; and a superb carol service at St. Paul’s Cathedral on Christmas Eve – one of the memorable moments of the year will be the remarkable peal of bells that rang out across old London as 2,500 people were leaving the cathedral that night. And tomorrow off to my brother and his family in Bath for what will be a really happy and long overdue and doubtless rather overfed catch-up.

It’s great having a London Christmas. Have you ever been? Of course the inevitable question for weeks was ‘when are you heading to Dorset?’ but in fact there’s nothing nicer than not going anywhere in a hurry. So much so that I think I might spend a few more days in London in those quiet days when the city feels abandoned; when you can walk the streets and feel closer than at any other time to the great London of previous decades and centuries—as Maggie said on Christmas eve, can you imagine what remarkable Londoners have made their way to St. Paul’s to hear carols on Christmas Eve, and who have felt the excitement of that great cascade of bells ringing across the ancient city?

Today, catching a rare brief morning (in this flooded Christmas) of pale, chilly, watery sunshine, we left after breakfast for Greenwich.

When I was about 10, my Dad, who was in the Navy, had the job of running the Royal Naval College – Britain’s only set-piece Baroque Palace, that remarkable assembly of Portland stone classicism facing the wide River Thames – and for 3 years, which in retrospect I think might have been quite influential, those amazing buildings were home. I will always remember my grandfather, himself a Greek scholar and schoolmaster, walking that very young me around the buildings and explaining, in his brilliant, inimitable way, the origin of the Corinthian Order or how to recognise a Doric column.

So it was a bit of a trip down memory lane. I have been back of course; a few years ago my friend George and I found ourselves teaching a random measured drawing course to  some students from Greenwich University in these handsome buildings. But I haven’t been for a long time, and not for ages with my parents.  There was something particularly special about spending an hour or two at this remarkable part of the city, reminiscing together. For Mum and Dad, I think their thoughts were on past friends, and a somewhat fading part of their lives, 30 years ago. For me, it’s weird – I really mean weird – to have such visceral flashes of memory; intense recollections of the buildings and places of my young childhood, which through a prism of practice today take on an altogether stronger meaning. And then we went to Blackheath, and to the beautiful Paragon, startling in its London-stock-brick and white stucco delicacy against the broad, green swathes of the common ground.

I often find the turn of the year a time for gentle retrospection, no more so than on a trip down memory lane. I think it was a quietly inspiring morning for all three of us.

The building on the left was where we lived. Bonkers, and possibly explains a lot.

Inigo Jones’s sublime Queen’s House.

And the towers of Canary Wharf glimpsed through the colonnades of old Greenwich.

Perfection at the Paragon, Blackheath.

Mum and Dad, reflecting on 30 years. A perfect day together.


15 comments on this post


What fantastic memories this brings back. I worked at RNC Greenwich in its final years as an academic. The first woman ever to work there! My office was huge, and panelled with two fireplaces and overlooked the Thames. I discovered it was where Admiral Byng was imprisoned prior to his execution. I opened up the fireplace that the MOD had thoughtfully boarded up and would light a fire before students came in for tutorials! I remember meeting your father at conferences on the Falklands. Many thanks for this post.

happy new year, ben!

i’m just getting around to this post now, as i wanted to take time with the photos ….. something that was in short supply in december. gorgeous light + architecture need to be savored.

I love your pictures, especially of West Dorset.
What a wonderful Holiday Season you must of had with your family
Thanks for sharing

Hi Ben, happy new year. I got your book ( a signed copy from Daunt !) just before Christmas as a treat and I am not disappointed! I remember discovering your shop towards the end of my research degree down the road at King’s, and being there certainly brightened up a rather drab student existence. Alas time flies and these days I hardly have time to meander into side streets to discover interesting places in London town anymore, but I have always had your blog at the back of my mind and would visit the online store to marvel at things I don’t have time to see with my own eyes across town. I am really glad to see your work getting more attention and the BP empire is growing at a steady rate..what with regular columns in the FT and the book etc. Reading the book prompted me to come back to the blog, which in turn prompted me to start my own, if only so that I can have a place to reflect on the things I choose to spend my time on and to strive to make these moments count even more. Thank you for being such an inspiration.


Dear Amanda, Happy New Year, and thank you for the comments!! Good luck with the new blog. All best, Ben


What a joy to read your piece on a London Christmas. Descriptions of cold London streets made cheery by a festive throng was reassuring and evocative. I have just come back from an unseasonable and changeable christmas in eastern Europe – usually typically seasonal. Hearing about London on my return made me feel as if I had missed out on something. Have a lovely holiday. PS Your table was indeed very fetching.

Your photos bring back memories for my husband who was an Australian Lieutenant Commander on the Staff College Course from August 1977-78. We try to visit Greenwich when visiting London so that we can wander around old haunts with which ever children are in town.

I had not seen or heard of the Paragon before, but it is quite outstanding. Greenwich too is somewhere I have not yet been, and should be part of a tour the next time I am in London. Like you over Christmas there, we are savouring the delights of a quieter Thai capital, as many have left or are in the process of leaving to go upcountry for the new year. The traffic seems almost manageable, in this city renowned for the problem.


I’ve always wanted to spend Christmas in London & after reading your post, I must. I received your book as a gift & after reading it I feel like you’re my kindred spirit. Wishing you a very Happy New Year!

What a lovely post. It’s so interesting, isn’t it, to look back and suddenly realize where some of our inspiration or influence comes from? Thank you for sharing with us readers what looks to have been a really special and warm family outing. What a merry, Christmasy thing!


The only times I’ve been to Greenwich in the last 10 years have have been for the London Marathon. Your pictures are making me feel that I must go and take more time to see it all! Just been round the State Rooms at BP today – wonderful trip. There’s just so much to do in London. (2 years ago around this date, took my brother and S-I-L to your shop and got a £40 fine for driving up the bus lane into Lambs Conduit St….!)


wow. what beautiful, evocative photos. thank you.

How funny, I went to school in Greenwich (St Ursula’s Convent, Blackheath) in the 80’s and a girl in my class’ Dad was the butler in that building at the time. Small world…Gorgeous photos which took me back…Enjoy the rest of your break – we’re off to Dorset tomorrow!


What a wonderful way to spend a quiet day over Christmas with your mum and dad. It’s interesting how memories flood back when you spend time in a place of your childhood. I’m sorry to hear about the relentless rain over there. Here in Australia we have had reasonably mild weather which is quite a change from the usual heatwave at Christmas. Enjoy the rest of your break over Christmas and New Year.

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