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  • Have they put the gaslights back on the gewgaw yet?

    8213a0c1c2226eea0fbff3be512c1a06.jpgSir Edward Simeon, who paid for the obelisk Sir John Soane designed for Reading's market place in 1804, doesn't get an entry in the Dictionary of National Biography. This seems a pity, since he was a director of the Bank of England and much given to local munificence – even if in the case of the obelsisk, it was partly intended to prop up his brother's campaign to get re-elected as local MP.

    It has even been claimed that the monument's three lamps commemorated Simeon and his two brothers. Simeon also re-built the family home, Britwell Manor at Britwell Salome in Oxon – not Soane, although there is a monument to his parents there that makes me think of Soane's work. The house was later extensively restored by the designer David Hicks.

    Soane, needless to say, is rather better represented in the DNB. As John Swan (1753-1837) he was born in Whitchurch in Oxfordshire. His father was a brick-layer, humble origins Soane may have been trying to hide when he first changed his name to Soan and then added the final 'e'.

    His eccentricity and his highly original buildings, including his astonishing house in Lincoln's Inn (now a fascinating museum) mean he is well-cast for the role of romantic architect. He has been cited as an influence by many contemporary designers including Robert Venturi (Sainsbury wing of the National Gallery) and Philip Johnson (Chipendale-topped Sony building, New York).

    f909ecac669d943052f65be59b261898.jpgSoane built with clean lines, careful proportions and a skilled articulation of light that even inspired Sir Giles Gilbert Scott when he was asked to design the prototype British telephone box. Scott based the design on the mausoleum Soane built for his wife in old St Pancras churchyard.

    The Soane Museum holds drawings for both the obelisk and for Simmonds Brewery in Reading and they are now on show at a worthwile exhibition there. Pevsner attributed Seven Bridges House (now at the centre of the Oracle Shopping Centre in Bridge Street) to Soane, but this was a confusion with a house long since lost. Soane also designed a house for a Reading Mayor called Lancelot Austwick. It subsequently became Greyfrairs vicarage and was (some would say inevitably in Reading) demolished. Soane also designed alterations to South Hill Park in Bracknell (subsequently re-modelled) and to Wokefield Park near Mortimer.

    A history of the Reading municipal charities (Blandy, 1960) describes how Simeon gave the Corporation of Reading £1,000 to pay for the gas to supply the lights on the obelisk ("erected and lighted forever at the expence of Edward Simeon, Esq" according to the inscription) and for the illumination of the clock over the nearby corn exchange. Surplus was to be used to maintain the obelisk, a responsibility that was not taken very seriously by the town. The gas lights (which in fact replaced earlier oil lamps) went out before the first world war, and as the obelisk decayed it sprouted a number of 'ornaments' including (for many years) a large road sign which obscured it, two subterranean lavatories, a little shed and a ventilation stack one writer described as 'sprouting up behind it like a goofy kid brother'. John Piper and John Betjeman both railed against the neglect of the monument – but to no result.

    When it was built a contemporary letter writer to the Reading Mercury claimed the gift of the obelisk was "an attempt to bias the heads of the Borough in his favour by setting up in the market-place a paltry gewgaw thing without use or name". The lights did have the virtue of extending the working day at the very centre of the town, and no doubt deterred nefarious activities once the working day had ended. In the twentieth century other nefariousness – in the town that locked up Oscar Wilde – is assumed to have prompted the closure of the lavatories either side of the obelisk.

    Only when a centenary loomed and they received some lottery money and a grant of £20,000 from the Soane Monument Trust was the Borough provoked into action. The obelisk is about to be restored by local stonemasons AF Jones and not before time, an exhibition currently at the town's museum commemorates local man Soane's importance.

  • Flood blog 4

    50264a554dc6274dacbc33466fa065b6.jpgIt seems to have stopped rising. It has been so much worse in other places. So far the Environment Agency's prediction seems right: the peak was reached around midnight last night. The level is now at least 15" lower than the peak in the bad flood in January 2003 when around 10 houses locally took some water in.

    The meejah really have a field day. Both local radio and the nationals have exaggerated the difficulties here. They have been obsessed with river 'surges', when thanks to the flood-plain we have had just a steady rise. They have confused expected peak levels with the vital point at which the Thames 'breaks its banks' – essential if the flood-plains are to protect us from flooding. More building on the flood-plain – no thanks.

    The reporting really worried a lot of locals, several of whom have come back early from holiday. Sandbags are in places a raging torrent couldn't reach. One lady, whose house is at least 3' above the peak of 2003, filled her bath with water in case she was cut off. I'm reasonably confident it won't be needed.f3a68e7b25a74a5b0437c854f993e3d1.jpg

  • Flood blog 3

    befe3541251db49283179fdee24f7c2c.jpgThe 'phony war' continues. A forecast overnight rise of .36m with a peak at 9.30am just didn't happen. The rise was about .25 inch per hour, which has been consistent lately. About 4 inches more and it may come in the lowest part of my office in the garden - the river is flowing fast round the end of this building now.

    Last night I made a very good fish pie and went for a swim. Amusingly, they told me the pool was closed the previous night because of a shortage of water. We've now all got sand bags and the road may soon be impassable. This morning local radio had a reporter on the riverside, marveling at hotel guests being served breakfast a few feet from the floodwaters. The veg patch is now under water, but the runner beans are 'loving it'.

    We're keeping our fingers crossed that this time the peak really will be reached at around midnight before we get the heavy rain forecast for tomorrow.

  • Flood blog 2

    fcfeedc3e5912c84a4eb2ff5f9e69843.jpgFine sunshine this morning. The forecast 'surge' didn't happen and the Thames rose only about 2 inches overnight. There were dire warnings in Reading yesterday and at least one business in Caversham put up a 'closed due to flooding' sign. We moved furniture from the two lowest rooms last night; the promised sandbags haven't arrived but we haven't needed them either.

    The 'Environmental Agency' (as many unknowingly misname them) have pushed forward their estimate of the expected peak to later tomorrow morning. If there is no serious rain and the present rate of rise continues, it should be no worse than four years ago and the levels may even be lower. That might still mean some houses and roads locally will flood.

    If it rises more than 6 inches in the next day or so we will still have problems. 

  • Flood blog 1

    b22f24644e33fe6769b70a4c6d96954a.jpgMonday morning and I've been digging up the last of the new potatoes, which will soon be under water. There's quite a fast flowing stream just over the wall where there is usually field. The Thames is spreading out over its ancient floodplain, and into the back garden.

    After rain like I'd never seen it on Friday, and serious flooding north of here, the river has been steadily rising for the last 24 hours. The lock-keeper told me he'd spent Friday in the pouring rain hand-cranking the weir sluices so they let down as much water as possible. His reward was groin strain and the week off. He didn't think it was going to be as bad as 2003.

    Later, the Environment Agency 'Control Room' told me that the rise is not expected to peak here until Wednesday morning. Lock gates apparently have open sluices on the tidal Thames. They are predicting flooding to houses in Lower Caversham and therefore presumably here from around midnight Tuesday. They said it might be worse than 2003.

    I sent out an email pointing people to the local flood maps for a one in a hundred year event.

    I'll decide this evening about moving furniture upstairs from the lowest rooms.

    Local weather 

    Flood warnings on theThames 

    Listen to local radio 

  • Cut through in time

    cc8e75654a69be49eca5c81e82ac811f.pngYesterday I took down my father's full size scythe for the first time since his death in 1990. He looked after it well, cleaning and honing the long blade, ideally shaped for cutting down the nettles at the bottom of the garden. The long wooden handle, with its two hand grips worn smooth from years of use, curves with potent elegance, making scything a kind of dance: my body twists as the blade slices, lopping the heads off the nettles as they fall to the ground. But I've never used my father's scythe before, and I haven't yet sharpened it and the blade catches on something tough in the undergrowth. He always took care never to do that. The thin, curved tip of the blade is torn and as I fiddle with it pointlessly, comes away in my hand. And in that moment I am suddenly ashamed as I hear his voice in my head: 'now that wasn't a very clever thing to do'.