Thursday 17 February 2011

Inky Stephens and a blot on the Big Society Landscape

*Updated 26th February: see later blog

When I was a child, and yes, this was long, long ago, in the antedeluvian, Janet and John days, when we made our own entertainment, I had a toy post office, which I absolutely loved: with a little red enamelled post box, toy town stamps, envelopes, forms, rubber stamps - and a miniature bottle of Stephens ink, all packed into a cardboard mock up of an old fashioned village post office. I loved this set so much, in fact, that - oh dear, this is sad - I didn't want to open it up, use it, and spoil its pristine condition.

Unfortunately, my older brother decided one day to vandalise the box, rip it open, steal the ink and use it for his John Bull printing set. I think he was printing messages to throw out of his bedroom window: Help: I am a prisoner in a post war nuclear family, in the suburban wilderness of the London Borough of Broken Barnet, and I want someone to remove my little sister, so that I can resume my blissful previous existance as an only child ... Or something.

My brother then threw the bottle on the fire to see if it would explode, or melt. He denied doing it, as he still does, as recently as last Sunday, even though, readers, I saw him do it. My parents didn't believe he had done it, of course, because he was so well behaved, unlike Mrs Angry. He is still very well behaved, which is why he doesn't read this blog, (or so he claims) ...

Anyway: I was vividly reminded of this scandalous event one day, a year or so ago, when, on impulse, and frankly, to get out of the rain, I nipped into Avenue House, here in Finchley, and found myself wandering around what must surely be the only ink museum in the world, tucked away in the recesses of one of the dark Victorian rooms. Bottles of Stephens ink, pens, blotters, more bottles of Stephens ink. (Not my tiny bottle, please note). And more pens. Don't get me wrong, I love pens: I still write with a fountain pen, in fact, so that people can read my scrawl, and because I love the process of writing with ink flowing out of a nib. And I love weird little museums that celebrate the offbeat interests and obsessions of our eccentric nation.

Why is there an ink museum in Finchley? Because, of course, Avenue House was once owned by Inky Stephens, of the Stephens Ink family. When he died, he left the house and gardens to the people of Finchley. The Grade 2 listed house is a large, rambling building, with many rooms decorated with heavy, late Victorian detail, and the grounds include a unique collection of exotic trees planted in the nineteenth century, gathered from around the world, and a rounded landscape of little hills, allegedly the landscaped deposits of earth dug for the nearby LNER railway. There is an old gardeners' bothy, and a secret walled garden, dragged back from the wild, but still annoyingly unaccessible. The site has a curious earlier history as a property held by the Knights Templars, in fact: like the former Manor House just down the road, relics of Finchley's distant past, much more ancient than many realise.

In 2002, the Avenue House estate was handed over to a body of local people, who were then made responsible for maintaining the house and grounds, letting the rooms for meetings, events and so on: you can hold weddings and parties in some of the rooms. Lots of local bodies and societies use the house for events, in fact, including, from time to time, our entertaining local Residents' Forum.

Since the estate was handed over to a local voluntary body, a trust, there have been some serious issues which have caused controversy and ill feeling, and doubts about the suitability of the new arrangement. There was, notably, a bitter dispute between the Avenue House board and the Finchley Arts Centre Trust over an abandoned use of the Bothy, left unresolved in 2008, and after a ten year restoration project. Last year, a loss of funding to some of the bodies who use the house resulted in a statement from the estate that it faced grave financial problems. And then, suddenly last week, rumours began to circulate that Avenue House was going to close.

Some local residents have now received flyers from the trustees saying that if they do not receive donations from them, the house will close at the end of March, and the property handed back to the council, which will result in the house being boarded up, and the grounds given only minimal maintenance in order that some access can continue. What a shame.

I wandered around the grounds today, to see how things were. As you enter the park, you are confronted with a large noticeboard, informing you that in 1918, the house and gardens were left by old Inky Stephens for "the use and enjoyment always of the public". Underneath this is a notice from the trust telling you you may quietly enjoy the grounds, and then three pages of A4 pieces of paper listing grumpy regulations controlling what sort of fun you may have, including eleven different types of nuisance you may not cause. I couldn't see anything about indecency in the bushes or peeing on the roses, so there might be some scope for antisocial behaviour, if you are so minded, and ladies, you might have to pee on the roses, (I was tempted) as the loos were all locked, and a terse note left on the shut up cafe tells you you can only use the indoor loos in certain circumstances: probably with written permission from Inky Stephens. The Bothy is all boarded up and covered with DANGEROUS STRUCTURE notices, the secret garden too. Elsewhere, ugly orange netted plastic fencing is ringing off abandoned areas of the grounds and casts a jarring visual note. The fabric of the house shows visible signs of crumbling at the front, and there is a general air of decline and fall. What a waste.

But let's think about this more carefully.

The Tories want us to believe that as part of the Big Society, funding should be withdrawn from social and cultural activities, and the running of such services given over to the voluntary sector. Here in Barnet, we are going to lose the Church Farmhouse Museum, and the Barnet Museum, because the philistines in the Tory cabinet would rather sell the buildings for development, and cut all funding, than support the only two borough venues which are dedicated to preserving and exhibiting our local heritage. They tell us that in Big Society style, volunteers can easily take over the running of these museums, and manage them without support from the council.

I think it is quite clear from what has happened at Avenue House that this is simply not possible. It is too heavy a burden. Whatever the good intentions of the people who have given their efforts and energies to keeping the estate going since 2002, the hard truth is that it cannot survive without professional administration, and, more crucially, proper funding. It can generate revenue, but not enough to be completely self sufficient.

If the trustees of Avenue House give the lease back to the council, this will be a shame. It need not be the end of the story, however. With support, and careful management, the financial health of the estate could improve, and perhaps it might even provide an opportunity to expand the use of the buildings. Why not move the Barnet Museum to the house, and expand the museum so as to present a more ambitious presentation of the history of the borough? Some of the material in storage, and some of the borough's unseen artworks, now languishing in the archives, could be on permanent view. You might even, sshh, charge a small entrance fee to generate income ... it wouldn't replace the excitement of the ink museum, of course, but even so ...

When Inky Stephens left his house and gardens to the people of Finchley, he must have expected the local borough to take responsibility for his estate: it is surely their moral duty to step in now and take an active interest once more. I do realise that morality is a difficult concept for some of our councillors, so let's approach it from a purely pragmatic direction. This issue is right at the core of the dilemma of the Big Society: if you want it to succeed, you have to continue to help people help themselves, and this includes giving the appropriate financial support, rather than implementing ideological spending cuts and pretending you are empowering the community you claim to serve.


Jaybird said...

There is a meeting planned on Thurs 24 Feb at 7 pm to explain the situation and gather support.

Avenue House is an important local resource, which I hope can be secured.

MickeyN said...

May I just correct this otherwise excellent article in just one respect. Barnet Museum in Wood Street is actually the museum of Barnet Town (aka Chipping/High Barnet), NOT the borough of Barnet. Our collection (owned by the museum not the council) is specific to the town as we keep telling the neo-Nasty Cllrs Rams and Coleman. The building which we have occupied for 80 years is in many ways an exhibit so we are not for moving. It is not even certain that the council owns the building (which it wants either to sell or to lease at market rent) and we will take this all the way to court if we have to. We are an entirely volunteer organisation (registered charity)and if after 80 years of popular and cultural community service (at minimal cost to the council) we cannot survive, then the Big Society is dead in the water.

Mrs Angry said...

hello Mickey: interesting points, and of course I can see the argument for wanting to retain the museum in its present location. I am intrigued by your comment that it is not even certain that the council owns it: what does this mean?
I would still like to see a museum that reflects the history and diversity of the borough's heritage,as well as offering exhibtion space: maybe something on the lines of Burgh House in Hampstead.

MickeyN said...

Mrs A

The building in Wood Street was given to the Museum back in the 1930's - the Borough of Barnet did not exist and Herts County Council and the Barnet Urban District Council were responsible for the area - so already there is an issue of title etc. Also, there are press reports at the time stating that the building was granted to the Museum "in perpetuity"; we are looking through archives to see where this came from, but as you can understand, some archives of this period and location are all over the borough/county. It has always been assumed that LBB owns the building, indeed they claim we cost the borough £23K - £28Kpa to maintain the building. As part of the consultation we devised a Business Plan that asked LBB to transfer the building to us (either freehold or a long lease at peppercorn rent) - which is allowed by Development Trust legislation. We would then take over the running cost of the Museum (difficult but not impossible for an entirely volunteer group) saving the Council its £28K. BUT NO! Neo-nasty Cllr Robert Rams, at a meeting before the Cabinet debacle, moved the goalposts and asserted that we would only get the building if we paid a market rent (some $40K) or if we buy the building (we cannot afford this at all). Hence the importance in establishing the true ownership and the real nature of our historical occupation of 31 Wood Street.

On your second point, I agree that a Museum of the Borough of Barnet would be a good thing. Alas, I do not see it happening in the Age of the Philistine in which we now live. Barnet Museum shows that even a small enterprise like ours needs a some support (albeit minimal) from public funds. Something like you advocate would need to wait until we see the backs of Hillan, Rams and Coleman and the rest of their neo-nasty clan (something to look forward to perhaps?)

Mrs Angry said...

hmmm: the new demand for market rent or sale merely emphasises the purely monetary attitude of the Tory administration: if they were genuinely on message with their party's Big Society agenda, what you proposed would be encouraged.
I have a question for private discussion: can you email me?