London: Hammersmith & City Line

[Still needs work on…quite a lot east of Paddington]

I set off one day on the Piccadilly Line aiming to connect with the western parts of the Bakerloo – but the vagaries of bicycle transport on the Tube and “a person under a train at Hammersmith” meant there was little prospect of getting to Harlesden before sunset. So I leapt off at Hammersmith and figured I’d make a start on the revoltingly pink Hammersmith & City Line. These days, this means we also tackle the top part of the Circle Line, though it wasn’t always so…the Circle Line used to be a true circle, but this had always been a bit of a fiction: the actual tracks are largely shared with both the Hammersmith & City (on the north) and the District (on the south); and there’s also a strong crossover with the Metropolitan. There are all sorts of difficulties operating a continuous circle (e.g. getting everything back on timetable if there’s a hold-up) so in 2011 they finally gave up trying and redefined the Circle Line as a Spiral. Or perhaps a Lasso, or a Belt, or a Frying-Pan.

These lines of course are not really underground so much as sub-surface, and their close relationship is reflected in endless schemes to unify the signalling, the system management and the tracks. They’re also all getting new carriages in the next few years, of the sort which will be continuously connected; thereby allowing them to cram even more people in and making it even more obvious that these are basically suburban commuter trains rather than a decent underground like most modern cities have. The western part of the line (from Hammersmith to Paddington) even has continuous daylight and excellent mobile phone coverage, and crosses the roads on bridges – so the Underground sign seems a bit mis-placed.

“Hammersmith & City” is a bit of a mouthful, and it may get a bit boring having to refer to it as such all the way through this piece; but at least on the ground it has the virtue of just being a single line where trains shuttle backwards and forwards: there are no loops, no branch-lines, none of the other malarky that makes some of the other lines hard to write up in a consistent manner. So we’ll follow the order of the Wikipedia article on the Hammersmith & City Line, and start in the west at Hammersmith.



Hammersmith

Making the transfer between the Piccadilly Line and the Hammersmith & City Line is not as easy as you might think. Hammersmith is one of those annoying ‘interchanges’ where the effort of crossing from one line to the other makes you think your journey might be easier if you just avoided the place altogether: you end up coming up through the soul-less Hammersmith Broadway Shopping Centre, crossing a nasty mess of roads, and then ducking into a rather dodgy-looking little suburban station. You can actually get lost if you didn’t keep your wits about you – and they even have the cheek to label it all as disabled-friendly!

The two stations reflect a rather split personality in Hammersmith: on the one hand it grew up as quite an elegant Victorian town with nice houses, decent churches and a little brick railway station; but splatted round it all are big 20th century developments like the Broadway, the A4 flyover and lots of ugly office blocks. Pevsner‘s observation seems horribly accurate: it was a muddle before anyone bothered about planning, and the traffic became the main force in tying together what was otherwise senseless.

Happily our route takes us northwards, so we’ll leave all the ugly Broadway stuff for the District and Piccadilly Lines and head towards the older parts. The old station looks alarmingly twee, country-ish and – let’s face it – run down and dirty. It doesn’t disappoint.


Hammersmith Station (Circle and Hammersmith & City Lines)
 

…and again
 

Station Roundel

We continue the Victorian theme with lots of nice-looking houses, a fine Carnegie-endowed Public Library, and the grand St Paul’s Church. Hammersmith obviously developed as, and still thinks of itself as, a rather nice place – though it has to work hard to ignore the flyover.


Typical Hammersmith street
 

Milton & Shakespeare at Hammersmith Public Library
 

St Paul’s Hammersmith

I say St Paul’s Church is ‘grand’, but Pevsner thinks it’s Large and well-mannered, if dull. Not a building it would be easy to grow fond of. That may improve now that it’s being cleaned, vastly refurbished, smartened up and proofed against the A4 flyover which runs right next door – though shutting out the noise may be a challenge even for the band who live here nowadays. Its resurgence kicked off 10 years ago when a contingent from Holy Trinity Brompton staged a takeover. If this seems a harsh word, have a look at the website: it pretty-well says there was nothing worthwhile going on before then, and it’s now full of people wishing the church an improbable ‘Happy 10th birthday’. And, as usual, rather a lot of post-grad qualifications on display. Here’s a link to the St Paul’s Hammersmith website, but be warned – the Alpha Course may be good, but the website, like the building itself, is rather over-serious and joyless.



Goldhawk Road

Options for moving north are basically a maze of nice streets like the one shown earlier, or the more messy but more interesting Shepherd’s Bush Road. I chose the latter.

Once you get past the library, everything is businesses, offices and people trying to co-exist in the rather squashed but generally coping sort of way typical of most of west London. You can despise it, but it’s where millions of people manage to live – and I generally think this thriving muddle is better than than the despairing emptiness of the east around Grange Hill. But there was still very little here to interest my camera!

One place that mildly caught my attention was The Grampians, a big 1930s block of flats with some Art Deco flourishes – big factory-type windows, concrete balconies, and some nice little curved blocks round the entrance. Other than that it looks a little down-at-heel, though the estate agents continue to talk it up and the flats sell for typically £275K; so it can’t be that bad.


1930s touches at The Grampians…

…and again

Just next door is an old Baptist Church, now taken over by a Philippino Full Gospel Church called TGCM, where TGCM stands for ‘The Great Commission Ministry’. This suggests that if you want to give directions to tourists you’ll find yourself saying ‘oh it’s just opposite the The Great Commission Ministry Church’, which might lead you to say instead ‘it’s just opposite The Grampians’. Alternately you could call it the ‘cheerful 1907 Perp brick church with the funny little spire’, which is how Pevsner views it.

TGCM appears to have five congregations in the UK, and to their credit they’ve put a lot of work into this place to make it fit for use. The TGCM Website gives us a few pictures of the inside which might suggest it’s not very exciting – but don’t be mistaken. Behind this rather down-market front is an international organisation feeding the upwardly-mobile aspirations of the Spanish-American-Philippino community with a Full Gospel obsession with Demons, the End Times and the smell of Sulphur. Just look at the Application for Church Membership and you’ll feel you’re already half-way to that comfortable life in the US…


TGCM Church, Shepherd’s Bush

If only Jesus had had a sign like this…

The general scruffiness increases rapidly as we plod along to Goldhawk Road station, though there’s worse to come further on. None of this is properly evil, but everywhere on the Hammersmith & City Line feels like it’s a hundred years overdue for rebuilding. And even where there’s an appearance of building work (at Goldhawk Road and Royal Oak) it’s not really rebuilding at all!


An attempt at a tidy photo…
 

…and a more honest one where I’ve just given up
 

Goldhawk Road – Station Roundel

Rebuilding? No – just hoardings to stop the walls falling down!

A curious fact is that there’s been a flower shop (Josie’s) in the station for at least 65 years – which suggests not all is completely lost and that crime hasn’t totally taken over. Another perhaps brightening element in the local culture is Shepherd’s Bush Market, which clusters along the side of the railway as far as the next Tube Station. The Market dates back to the early 20th century and reckons to be good for CDs, food, yams and other exotic fruits and household goods: though an alternate view might be that it’s a dirty crime-ridden hole that could do with being completely flattened and cleaned out.  But then I’ve never been a fan of markets. That said, Hammersmith & Fulham (H&F) Council agree with me to the extent of approving a development programme to regenerate and widen the market, increase the number of stalls, knock down the surrounding buildings and generally improve things. I guess it can only get better, though I find the artist’s impression a little hard to believe.


Cheerful in the face of adversity – Shepherd’s Bush Market

Artist’s Impression – Hah! – of the redevelopment

In theory one can walk through the market to the next Tube station, which is even named Shepherd’s Bush Market Station – but there are big signs up telling cyclists they’re not welcome in the market. And given the general crush of people, I can see their point. Let’s hope the redevelopment, when it comes, allows us gentle souls in to enjoy its promised new delights.

Our last stop in Hammersmith, which is actually opposite a nice patch of grass called Shepherd’s Bush Green, is the Hammersmith Empire. Designed by the great theatre architect Frank Matcham, it looks pretty grand inside, despite being abandoned as a theatre in the 1950s and used by the BBC as a Television Theatre. What is a Television Theatre? I guess it’s where they want a show to look like a Theatre show, with an audience: and the roll-call (courtesy of Wikipedia) is certainly impressive: Crackerjack, Hancock’s Half Hour, The Old Grey Whistle Test, That’s Life, The Generation Game, The Basil Brush Show, Juke Box Jury, This is Your Life, Jim’ll Fix It (oh dear), and almost all the BBC’s light entertainment music shows starring Cliff Richard, Lulu, Cilla Black, Spike Milligan, Dusty Springfield, Shirley Bassey, Vera Lynn, Harry Secombe, and Petula Clark; as well as the fabulous UK Eurovision Song Contest preliminary heat, A Song For Europe. And for some reason from 1985 the place was turned over exclusively to Wogan, which was broadcast 3 nights a week from here.


Hammersmith Empire – exterior

Hammersmith Empire – interior

More recently the place has been bought up by O2: now labelled the O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire, it’s currently a music venue where bands like the Stereophonics and many others have performed.

And what makes a Frank Matcham theatre so special? In a way it’s hard to say, because he built so many of Britain’s theatres that there’s almost nothing earlier to compare them with – but essentially it’s that wonderful mix of warm classical velvety opulence with good fire-proofing and ‘clear lines of sight without pillars in the way’ that just makes it right. There are plenty of older theatres in London where the sight-lines are terrible (and the prices outrageous for such awful seats): while the moderns are far better on sight-lines but lack the warmth – though I admit when you’re watching Ibsen at the National you don’t need velvety warmth so much as a nail to bang into your hand.

I love the cool rationality of the National Theatre, but there are plenty of moderns where the experience is pretty trashy – the Hexagon at Swindon, the Roses at Tewkesbury, and the Young Vic, come rapidly to mind. By contrast everyone would recognise Newcastle’s Theatre Royal, Cheltenham’s Everyman, and Hammersmith and Hackney in London as true ‘theatres’. Matcham actually did about 150 in total, though sadly a lot have been lost along the way. There’s a nice Wikipedia Page on Frank Matcham if you want to know more.



Shepherd’s Bush Market

A very short way on is the Station now known as Shepherd’s Bush Market. It wasn’t always so – in fact for most of it’s life it was just Shepherd’s Bush, but since there was also a Shepherd’s Bush on the Central Line this led to endless confusion. The coming of the Westfield Centre (see Wood Lane below), and new Overground and Underground stations there, risked having all three called Shepherd’s Bush, so at last common sense prevailed and this one got a slightly different name. It still all looks pretty messy on the Tube map, but at least once you figure it all out it’s more ‘honest’ these days. And for a while, Londoners had an opportunity to insert their own suggestions…


Not quite confident in its new name yet

Shepherd’s Bush Market Station

The station itself is every bit as horrid as Goldhawk Road, and there’s still worse to come – but for the moment lets visit the cheerful church of St Stephen and St Thomas. I’m never clear why these two are bracketted together – Thomas was a disciple, Stephen wasn’t but was merely a deacon in the early church; Stephen was the first Christian martyr, stoned to death in Jerusalem, while Thomas reportedly headed off east and founded lots of churches as far as India. He did also die as a martyr, though it’s not clear how – but there were plenty of other martyrs whose names might be more closely allied with Stephen’s. Ah well…

The building is technically in Decorated Ragstone style, which the Ecclesiologist thought ‘very pretty and ecclesiastical-looking’; more recently it got a modern restoration which Pevsner reckons is ‘to good effect’, along with a nice hall and parsonage group next door. It’s rare to have approval from both these sources, and the church also seems to exercise a healthy middle-evangelical ministry, which is even rarer round these parts.


St Stephen. And St Thomas.

Detail from the church hall

A rather less exciting piece of architecture, though also a House of Prayer I suppose, is Loftus Road Stadium, the home of Queens Park Rangers (QPR). To call this place a Stadium seems a bit extravagant – it’s the smallest and possibly the nastiest ground in the Premier League, and it really wants pulling down. The Wikipedia Article on Loftus Road seems to go to painful lengths to list its many failings and the history of attempts to shift QPR to somewhere better; but for the moment it all struggles on.


The dismal Loftus Road Stadium


Wood Lane

Well now….Wood Lane station is easily confused with White City, and both of them with the various Shepherd’s Bushes: and I can never remember which is on any particular Tube Line. I had thought this was because I’m rather stupid, but it turns out the complexity has roots deep in history and is entirely understandable. Here are the basics of the story:

1908 Two Wood Lane stations open, to serve the Franco-British Exhibition and the 1908 Summer Olympics. Helpfully (or not) they’re called Wood Lane (Metropolitan Line) and Wood Lane (Central Line).

1914 Wood Lane (Metropolitan Line) closes generally, but is still opened occasionally for exhibitions. The area comes to be known as White City because of the white exhibition buildings – and it grows hugely in population.

1947 Wood Lane (Central Line) closes and is replaced by White City station a little to the north, to support reconfiguration of the Central Line. Wood Lane (Metropolitan Line) stays where it is, but is also renamed as White City (Metropolitan Line).

1959 White City (Metropolitan Line) closes.

2008 A new Wood Lane station opens on the Metropolitan Line (which by now is called the Hammersmith & City Line), a little north of the old White City (Metropolitan Line), to support the new Westfield Shopping Centre.

Meanwhile the Westfield Shopping Centre project is itself part of the ‘White City redevelopment project’, which rather adds to the confusion.

As of today, then, we have, working from north to south:

White City Station on the Central Line

Wood Lane Station on the Hammersmith & City Line

Shepherd’s Bush Market Station on the Hammersmith & City Line

Another Shepherd’s Bush station on the Overground

Shepherd’s Bush Station on the Central Line

As you might guess, there are a plethora of websites which explain all this – or which try to, at least. The most helpful, for anyone who really cares, is probably the Wikipedia Article on Stations around Shepherd’s Bush and its excellent map – though even then it takes some unravelling.

The Westfield Centre itself gets a mixed press. On the downside it’s expensive, it’s ‘ruined the local landscape’, it’s ‘destroyed local shopping’ etc etc. But on the other hand it’s nice and clean, it’s got most things you’d want, it’s easy to get to, it’s secure and well-managed – and in fact I don’t think the criticisms hold up. It even seems – dare I say it – not that big when you stand on the street and look at it alongside its traditional 4-storey terrace house neighbours – though once inside I admit it’s a hideously large space. Part of me hates it vigorously, though another part thinks they’ve designed it rather well and it’s far better than it could have been. Like Eldon Square in Newcastle, for instance, or the various horrors in Cheltenham and Gloucester.

Does Westfield, the biggest shopping centre in Europe, deserve its own page from me? Hopefully not, but here is a link to the main Westfield website – which to me is a masterpiece of how not to construct a website. It’s full of conflicting ideas, images, branding and features; it’s aimed at people whose only mission in life is to shop and spend any money they ever have, and to me it does nothing to aid understanding or help me go to a shop, pay for something and come away with it.

Confusingly the Westfield company has now opened in Stratford too, so there is Westfield West and Westfield East. You’d think they might have anticipated this when they picked the name ‘Westfield’, but no. We’ll know civilisation has finally collapsed when Shepherd’s Bush and Stratford Tube Stations change their names to variations on Westfield…and joined together by the Central Line.

Once we get to the new Wood Lane Station we find it’s a complete rebuild, done in the usual glass, grey concrete, stainless steel and strong blue that we see in most of the new Tube stations like those on the southern end of the Jubilee Line, Shepherd’s Bush, Westminster, etc etc. You get the impression this design is partly driven by security and the need to anticipate much larger numbers of people than the older Tube stations did – but that’s no bad thing, and I’m definitely a fan. It feels a little more expensive, generous and overall pleasant than you might expect, and it also seems to be holding up well.

Interestingly the old Wood Lane (Central Line) station was left standing derelict for many years and was never redeveloped; but having the BBC next door meant it did occasionally get used as a set. Most famously, in 1964, it was ysed for the Doctor Who serial The Dalek Invasion of Earth. So Westfield finally accomplished what the Daleks never quite managed: the obliteration of Wood Lane Station.


The old Wood Lane (Central Line) station

Doctor Who (William Hartnell) assaulted by Daleks

We ought not to leave without saying more about the BBC Television Centre, opened in 1960 and in its day a leader in the exciting new technology and opportunities of television. Whole generations of us grew up with Blue Peter and Nationwide showing us round this place and telling us, year after year, just how important television was to our lives. We never thought to ask, in today’s cynical way, just who was telling us this – and perhaps the presenters of those times didn’t either. We were all just amazed at it all.

More recently, though, the technology has shrunk hugely and moved well outside these specialist studios; we all work in open plan offices or at home over the internet; cameras work in natural light; there’s no need at all for such a massive complex and a lot of it is empty. Huge parts of the BBC are moving – either into new buildings next to Broadcasting House back at Oxford Circus, or joining the stampede up north to horrible Media City at Salford. Westfield has made land values shoot up here, so there are plans to knock the place down, sell off the land and redevelop.

But part of the complex is now Listed, so it’ll have to be preserved somehow. The listing seems to be for two reasons – firstly the building itself (an early example of a doughnut), and secondly because of its significance historically. In a rare piece of genuine humour the Minister who Lists Things observed in 2009 that Television Centre “has been a torture chamber for politicians, and an endless source of first-class entertainment for the nation – sometimes both at the same time.”

So there’s the challenge – to find a future for that famous spotty wall.



Latimer Road

Escape from Westfield takes us over the A3220, the West Cross Route, which along with the A40/Westway is the sum total of ‘good roads’ around these parts. The traffic generally keeps moving here, and the A3220 at least seems to blight its surrounding less than the Westway – perhaps because there wasn’t much here to blight in the first place. But both roads now increasingly start to determine our environment along the northern part of the Hammersmith & City Line.

Our first footfall over the road is the Edward Woods estate, another bit of 1960s council building for the masses. I couldn’t see anything particular to photograph, which I have to admit makes me less interested in the social engineering – though Pevsner notes it was the last council estate where existing houses were actively demolished to create space for the new development. So moving on quickly, we leave the estate and come to a blue house. Nothing particularly remarkable about painting your house blue, though I bet the next occupants will paint it some other colour – blue never seems to last for terribly long.

A little further on is The People’s Hall. Someone built this, again as a social facility, in the early 20th century: but as is often the way it subsequently got sold on, fell on hard times, and then got redeveloped as posh flats. There’s not much about it these days that is ‘the People’s’ – but at least it looks smart and the name lives on.

A little further on is the Bramley Arms, a prosperous-enough-looking pub. Is this starting to sound a bit boring? Well, I guess it’s an area of basically decent housing, plonked here at various times, where people must be glad to find decent homes so near to a Tube station.  There’s little that’s either shockingly awful or wonderful, though it gets a bit tatty round Latimer Road station.

I wouldn’t normally bother highlighting the Wikipedia page for Latimer Road Tube Station, but this one definitely seems to search hard for things to say about it, telling us lots about the electronic ticket machines and about the recent refurbishment (really?) while failing to give us any useful photographs at all. We do learn however that Latimer Road is now 500m away: it used to run closer, but Westway put paid to that – but why bother changing the name of the station? Perhaps after changing every other station on the line someone just dug their heals in here.

Last in this section we’ll note another church – after all, we haven’t had one for a while. This one is Notting Hill Methodist Church, though it shows on Google Maps as a Revival Church. This in itself leads me to think it represents an Afro-Caribbean variety of Methodism, and in fact their Notting Hill Methodist Church website confirms this. These are not calm English Methodists.

Their history page is particularly interesting, tracing a line from middle-class well-to-do Kensington and Chelsea to this poorer area which became a really run-down immigrant community in the 1960s. With characteristic Methodist enthusiasm the central organisation pitched the church into social support and help, along the way moving the worship area into the top of the church and creating community rooms downstairs.


Notting Hill Methodist Church

The story reads as an interesting mix of enthusiasm, good intention, the resource constraints inherent in modern church life, and a vaguely good hope for the future of the church and community – so we’ll wish them well and head up the road to Ladbroke Grove.



Ladbroke Grove

Around here it all becomes a bit of a blur, which probably reflects the life of the area. For a start there’s bog-standard private housing, mainly Victorian, which would have been upper-working/lower-middle class in its day but which clearly got settled by waves of immigrant and transient white communities in the 1960s. They’re not intrinsically bad houses, but the conditions of those times (low rents, war damage, cheap drugs, transient populations, a taste for painting the outside of your house any bright colour you could find) have left their mark. And then there’s council housing: there seems little of really good quality, but a lot of poor stuff from the early 20th century and some really grim ‘projects’ from later. Lastly, Westway is unavoidable: that elevated stretch of the A40 which slices through it all like a river of boiling lava. 

Running through it all, though, there’s also a lot of energy. Bits of the 1960s remain, but they’ve learned to live with Westway and there’s a new middle class moving in and doing the houses up. They can’t quite take things all the way back to the original stone and brickwork, but they’re certainly making their mark as they revert to sensible colours and nice plants in the front gardens.

The station itself is a strange affair – after a million or two spent to make it disabled-friendly they’ve actually cancelled the programme now, so it’s left as a strange hybrid of different styles and periods. There’s also the issue of the Portobello Road market nearby: having been one of the ‘happening’ places in the 1960s it’s been declining ever since, and the market traders have been campaigning for the station’s name to be changed to put their market on the map. Why Transport for London should take this seriously I’ve no idea, but it’s evidently got as far as a bye-line on the Station Roundels…

You can see the elevated railway track in the photo above: just behind that track lies the vast concrete ribbon that is Westway, the elevated A40 road that sweeps traffic into central London. If you think that’s bad, consider the alternative – namely that all the traffic would pile through these little streets – which was the obvious reason for building it in the first place. In the diagram below, Westway and the West Cross Route are the solid blue line out to the west of the Central Zone. If you want more of this fascinating story, see the Wikipedia page on London’s Ringways, the even better Pathetic Motorways article on the Ringways, or the astonishing Chris’s British Road Directory. And just consider how bad things would be if we didn’t have as much of the scheme as we do have.

So… firstly the bad news: as Pevsner says, ‘imposed with apparently ruthless disregard to the effect on the neighbourhood’. And this is only part of it: the West Cross Route was originally intended to go north as well – so watch out, Oxford Gardens!

The better news is that the ’70s saw a campaign of barriers and other measures to mitigate the worst effects; and from the 80s onwards community groups started taking control through bodies like the Westway Development Trust, with a variety of shops, offices, bus garages, workshops and community facilities now clustered under it and built around its funny geometries. But it’s been a mighty struggle.

A last couple of shots, and then we’ll move on…


Constructing the Westway…a beautiful piece of geometry…

…and a more realistic shot in mid-afternoon, every day of the week

And now, back at ground level…


Shops under the Westway, doing their best

North Kensington Library, a nice piece of Edwardiana

Although this area is technically Kensington, it certainly wasn’t always the upper-middle-class suburb that we associate with the area round the museums and Kensington High Street. It’s hard to believe, but historically this was a very low-down area of farms, dirty industry and poverty: in Victorian times it was developed badly and subsequently became an area of poor housing and even worse poverty. This left it as a dumping-ground for the immigrants of the 1960s, who famously fell pray to Peter Rachman.

Rachman is known these days as a slum landlord who got rich off the backs off his tenants, though arguably he was only taking advantage of the legal framework of the time: it was entirely legal for a landlord to refuse to let to black or poor tenants, so Rachman made his money by deliberately renting to these markets – knowing they were desperate, would pay what he asked, and wouldn’t complain to the authorities. Some even viewed him as a social benefactor, though when the rents shot up, over-crowding became endemic, and his bully-boys moved in, it became clear what was really going on. Even then, though, it took a couple of serious fires in his properties, and a connection to the great and the good through the Profumo Scandal, to get fair rent and tenancy legislation put in place. And so a short episode in British social history came to an end, and the word Rachmanism passed into the vocabulary.

Read more about it at the Wikipedia article on Peter Rachman, and consider that as I write this in 2012, our government is trying to rescind that same housing legislation. 

Nowadays the property prices here have rocketed sky-high. Pevsner gives more on this, and it’s such a classic case that even the BBC recently did a piece on it, featuring a house whose value had risen from £12K to £2M in 40 years. It’s no wonder, then, that when prices were low the Westway was smashed through with little thought for the local people.

Lancaster Road nearby is an interesting example of the ‘paint your house any outrageous colour you like’ movement. I remember my Dad back in the 1970s condemning a local house as ‘Pakistani Blue’, though in fact only its woodwork was painted: here it’s everywhere, and the community is Afro-Caribbean rather than Pakistani, where it hasn’t been re-col;onised by the white middle classes. Some of the wild colours hang on, but restoration and renewal are the order of the day, and sober middle-class colours are moving in. I just hope they don’t lose the fun and jollity altogether: at the end of the day there’s got to be something worth keeping from the swinging ’60s.


1960s exuberance

The more sober taste of 2012

In similar vein, there’s still a mural hanging on at the end of the street. And the Portobello Road market keeps going, though when I visited it clearly wasn’t their busiest time of the week.


Mural. Yeah, right.

The heaving Portobello Road Market – Not!

Being essentially a Victorian suburb, there’s a fair sprinkling of churches; though being London, and the church always being short of money, most of the churches hereabouts seem to have been founded by sectional interests who’ve pushed their own lines ever since. One such is All Saints Notting Hill, a very effective traffic obstruction and also, by its own declaration, an obstruction to most other things that the church might be in the 21st century.

All Saints Notting Hill

A Forward in Faith Parish
“with a vision for Unity and Truth”
under the episcopal care of the Bishop of Fulham
served by priests of the Society of the Holy Cross

Sunday Mass 11AM

Yes, it says it all. We know what kind of ‘Unity’ this means. The more-catholic-than-catholicno-women, don’t want anything to do with the rest of the Church of England message is pretty clear, and even the colour scheme shrieks at you – though I suspect it’s more the product of panic than of real power. The All Saints website laments the fact that all the good guys are going over to the catholic Ordinariate and leads you to think ‘honestly, there’s no reason at all why I would join this troubled institution, when I could have more fun banging my head on the wall at home.’

The church building is only the central part of what was an idealistic project to build a New Town on what was then an undeveloped part of Kensington; a scheme which also included a college of [presumably the right sort of] priests. And the man behind it? Ah, no surprises there – a staunchly Tractarian Victorian cleric from St Columb Major in Cornwall. As we know, they’re all bonkers down there.

If you can see past the plaster saints and the ‘Maryolatry’ it’s actually quite a nice mid-Victorian building, though rather like hundreds of others including two which I know well: St Luke’s and St Gregory’s in Cheltenham. (Gosh, I’m seeing greeny flashes from that purple background even as I write this.) It does, however, have a higher roof with a clerestory, and an amazingly ambitious tower. Apparnetly it’s based on St Bavo at Ghent, and was originally even taller with a spire on top. Pevsner notes approvingly that ‘the top stage not only turns octagonal but is enriched by bands of coloured stone and marble shafts’, also observing that the corner buttresses seem to lock the whole thing together. I’m tempted to say it’s not the only thing here that’s a bit ‘locked in’, but it certainly means it’s noticeable from the Westway.


All Saints, Notting Hill

The strange but attractive tower
 

Interior: all a bit ordinary, really

Groan…

The Westway developers had originally proposed a ground-level highway which would have run right past All Saints…I suppose it would all have been even worse than it is today, but it’s hard to say. And meanwhile Pevsner remains gloomy about the local housing stock: it didn’t strike me as too bad, but he reckons it’s all basically rubbish and has had to be rigorously improved through the late 20th century. But is it so far from the grand stuff we see around South Kensington station on the District Line? I’m not so sure.



Westbourne Grove

The way to Westbourne Grove lies through more of the bad-but-done up terraces that Pevsner distrusts, along with some more modern infill that he rates more highly. I hope that means the post-2000 stuff rather than the 1960s grot, because some of that is truly awful, though none the less worthy of comment here. Tavistock Crescent and the London Lighthouse gain approval, though I have to admit there was nothing that made me want to photograph them when I passed by; more interesting to my mind (though I don’t claim this as great architectural insight) are the appalling Trellick Tower, the even worse Brunel Estate, and the various wrap-around attempts made to reclaim the Westway.

So…the terrible Trellick Tower. It’s now of course, a Grade II Listed Building, and one of the most popular attractions every year at London’s Open House weekend. Flats here sell for half a million upwards, and yes of course I’d kill to get inside – which is why I was so thrilled in 2011 to get into its evil little brother Balfron Tower. I’ve written a vast amount there about the Erno Goldfinger experience, so I won’t repeat it here – but we can’t escape a few photos and some comments. And for more, see the Wikipedia article on Balfron Tower and Trellick Tower, or google either of them.

The approach along the Regents Canal is, admittedly, not too bad: there’s a certain appeal about walking through a geometry park, through where they got the name Cheltenham Estate it’s hard to know.

The full horror, of course, hits you all too soon. A vast 33 storeys with a separate lift/stair tower linked on every third floor; 217 flats arranged into ‘streets in the sky’. Pevsner is rather non-commital in describing it as ‘unforgettable’, with ‘a silhouette that is undoubtedly dramatic, not least when lit up at night’ – but I notice he moves quickly on. Myself, I was mildly disappointed: having come to understand Balfron’s few good points I’d expected this to be a step up – it was after all built a year later – but in fact it seems more austere, more beaten-up, less friendly. Perhaps it’s just that I’ve never been inside here, but the surrounding blocks seemed particularly unloved and unwelcoming. Here goes with the full set…

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Pevsner‘s write-up is short but at one point he launches out in praise of the concrete surfaces. He may be referring to the curved surfaces of the main buildings (like the one here at the back of the abandoned community centre) but he seems to intend it also for the maze of concrete walkways. I can only say I disagree…


“Impeccably detailed bush-hammered surfaces…

…exude a sophisticated urbanity rare in England…”

The trouble with this is that it’s so obviously untrue. The reality is a rather horrid concrete aggregate; they never yet found a good way to join the panels together or to deal with bends and corners; and it’s all aging rather badly. What this says loud and clear to the residents is “you don’t matter enough for us to bother doing any better for you”. In fact some day I’ll take similar photos at St Thomas’s Hospital which show how much better it could have been.


…except at bends and corners, where it says “can’t be arsed”

Hurrying back to the station, we first have to duck back under the Westway. Around here there are some curious wrap-around efforts to try to love the thing; one is Westbourne Studios, another is a curiously red brick place with all the curviness of plastic, which turns out to be the First London Bus Garage. I guess a bus garage can stand having tons of traffic making its roof go up and down, and it doesn’t actually need to have precisely rectangular space inside…but I still wouldn’t trust anything of mine to spend a night under the Westway.


What can this strange brick place be?

Ah – it’s First London Bus Garage!

Back at the station it’s another rather unimproved Victorian affair. There’s nothing specially wrong with it, but it starts to feel a little desperate the way no money at all seems to have been spent in the last hundred years on what is a critical urban rail line. Still, I guess it just keeps on working…and I guess it costs quite enough money anyway to preserve that Victorian look.


Westbourne Park Station

…and again

Station Roundel

Next we bash on along Westbourne Park Road to Royal Oak. Pevsner is enthusiastic – “an attractive mixture of villas and terraces…with picturesque vistas created by the curving streets” – but trouble lurks: “The stuccoed idyll is terminated by large borough housing schemes in tough dark brick…of which the most ambitious is the Brunel Estate.”


Brunel Estate

Brunel Estate

“A formidable high-density development…in huge slabs linked by long ribbon balconies…”


Brunel Estate

Brunel Estate

“…with bold landscaping in an effort to mitigate the lumpish forms of the buildings…”

Hmm. An effort, perhaps, but it really doesn’t work. Apparently it replaces the usual slum streets full of protitutes and Mr Rachman’s tenants – though I get the impression it houses plenty of other badness of its own.

I didn’t take any photos to confirm Pevsner’s idyllic view of the surrounding streets, but it certainly is pleasant once you’ve turned your back on the Brunel Estate; and St Stephen’s Church sits in the middle of it. It was open when I passed but seemed to be full of the local playgroup so I didn’t manage to get inside: externally, though, it’s a pleasant 1850s church in Kentish Ragstone by F & H Francis. That said, it looks like yet another an identikit of many other churches of the period including St Luke’s and St Gregory’s in Cheltenham, so we know exactly what it’ll be like inside.


St Stephen’s…

…and again


Royal Oak

Although the name is misleading, Westbourne Park Baptist Church is just over the road from Royal Oak Station. It’s built on the north east corner of a block so any photograph you take after noon will be shooting directly into the sun – so here’s a photo that someone else has taken in the morning. Even then, though, it’s not exactly a pretty backdrop for wedding photos: my judgement was that it needed the demolition squad in, and in fact the church’s own website suggests they may have similar thoughts. There is talk on the website of an “exciting new development project in conjunction with the Dolphin Square Foundation”, though in my experience this usually means less church and more social housing. Slightly worrying is that the website is months out of date – which may suggest the whole project has ground to a halt. Ah well, more time to appreciate the flaking 1960s concrete, the vast soulless steel window frames, the leaky roof, the bad heating system…yeah, you get it.

Pevsner, by contrast, gets rather excited about this one: “quite daring for it’s date” (1961). Perhaps it is, and looking at the quite nice photo here it’s hard to see why you’d want to pull it down. Does the prospect of a “bold cantilevered gallery opposite the swooping form of the sounding board over the pulpit” sound appealing? I’ll have to go back and see.

Royal Oak Station itself is a horrible mess, completely surrounded in every direction by construction work for Crossrail. One can only hope they’ll do a decent restoration job on it in the manner of Farringdon (see later) in the later parts of the work, but for the moment it’s pretty grim. It doesn’t help that Royal Oak sits just west of Paddington and all the western rail lines into London, so there’s basically nothing here except a huge mess of railways – with the station perched on the side of a bridge which crosses the whole lot. There is just no ‘locality’ to Royal Oak: no community that would call itself Royal Oak, and not even an Oak itself that would claim the title.


Royal Oak Station…

…can’t even do its name-sign properly

A different perspective is obtained from the trains down below, but the result is the same: you get such a gloomy view of the Royal Oak platforms that you think, again, that it might be a kindness to flatten the whole lot.


Station Roundel

The only relief is northwards to the Westway and yet another big estate: though not such a grim one this time, and undoubtedly a great improvement on the slums that were here in Victorian times.


Fighting across the Westway

Westbourne Green Estate

Just the other side of the estate is the Regent’s Canal: today this is a haven of tranquillity and middle-class bonhomie, but in Victorian times it once again embodied the worst industrial squalor and poverty. Into those filthy, cramped, disease-ridden streets sailed the Rev Dr Richard Temple West, determined to care for those poor folk and bring them the light of the gospel. And, of course, to build them yet another London church which would enshrine its own particular tastes until hell freezes over.

In this case, as a former curate of All Saints, Margaret Street, that meant he was rabidly into high anglicanism – and so we’re left with what seems a rather out-of-touch, poorly attended little shrine that looks a bit like a space rocket. But at least he had the good taste to get his friend G E Street as the architect. The location, the orientation and the layout all seem a bit quirky nowadays, but we see it in a lavish parkland rather than in its original cramped and poky setting: and although a lot about it screams “anachronism”, it’s undoubtedly a beautiful example of Street’s genius.


St Mary Mag’s, Woodchester Square…

Whoosh…!

Heading back to the south of Royal Oak Station, Porchester Square offers a nice respite: grand houses and lovely magnolia in the square itself. And Porchester Hall, which seems to be almost a public building, almost a library and civic centre, and almost done in jolly Beaux-Arts style. It is in fact extremely grand inside, but it doesn’t seem to do much to tell this to the casual visitor: happily the Porchester Hall website is much more helpful.


Porchester Square, enjoying the sunshine

Porchester Hall, rather hiding its internal glories


Paddington

And now we’re on our way to Paddington Station: though considering the area is about 80% railway lines, there’s still an amazing lot to entertain us on the way. First is the Bishop’s Bridge estate, another 1960s council development shoehorned rather ungraciously in among the stucco terraces. They made some attempt to lighten the impact: the housing blocks themselves are laid out in ribbon patterns with angled corners, the concrete detailing makes a certain zig-zag and chequerboard attempt to avoid looking brutish, and the colour schemes are not awful.  But those balconies…!


Bishop’s Bridge Estate…

…and, round the back, those awful balconies

On a sunny day it’s worth walking round the estate just to appreciate its better, and its worse, features. And considering that this was done with public money, when it was viewed as a Good Thing to spend it on improving our general health and wellbeing. And then compare it (see twokingdomstreet below) with how we do it in the 2000s: bestow all the real estate on private companies, give them vast amounts of public money to redevelop the area, and then pay handsomely forever more for the privilege. And let them treat us like dirt.

Before we get to twokingdomstreet, though, let’s have a look at the canal. You might not notice it unless you going looking, but the Grand Union Canal is a major feature in the urban landscape here. It starts life in the Midlands but finishes up at two points in London: the main terminus is Brentford Junction out west (which is a bit uninspiring), while the more interesting part is the Paddington Arm, running closer to the centre of London and finishing in Paddington Basin. Cloe bym it also connects on to the Regents Canal – which circles Regent Park, then goes through Camden, and eventually connects to the Thames at Limehouse. This allows cargo to be moved from well down the Thames around the metropolis and off up north – or vice versa – and it all forms a kind of early M25. These days there’s still some commercial traffic on the canals, but largely they’ve been cleaned up and made to look nice, finding a new life as a fantastic leisure and tourist facility. So…here are some of the jolly canal scenes on offer if you step a few feet outside Paddington Station.


 

 

Coming down past the grand villas of St John’s Wood

Under the blue bridge lies the Regent’s Canal

Where it passes under the Westway

There’s even a Water Bus runs along from here to London Zoo, in Regent’s Park, and Camden Lock

Less cheerful, sadly, is getting shouted at by the little Hitlers who patrol the once public, now privately-controlled sites and streets around here. Kingdom Street is a particular case: the council seem to have given up on it completely, and although the street itself is still a discernible line between the glass blocks you’ll still get shouted at if you try to cycle up it. “Kingdom Street is a public road on the map, therefore I have every right to ride my bike on it” I yelled.

Truth was, of course, that I didn’t particularly want to ride on this particular road – but I did want to photograph the buildings and the artworks. And particularly to explore the weird “twokingdomstreet” which I’ve seen many times advertised from the train. It took me a few attempts to understand what the word meant, and I still think it’s funny – perhaps more so since “twokking”, or at least “twoccing”, is a police expression used for the offence “Taking Without the Owners Consent”. It seems an apt expression for these big business land-grabs.


“twokingdomstreet”
 

I got shouted at for photographing this
 

Daring new architectures…
 

…and an attempt to break up the buildings’ bulk
 

More pointless “public” art…
 

…and another place I got shouted at.My line is – I was standing on a public street, therefore it was perfectly reasonable to photograph it!

Another piece of silly art, though perhaps a little more worthy of affection, is these two men: they look utterly real yet are simply fibreglass – but there’s something in their very dullness which makes then quite convincing.

And so to Paddington Station itself. Waterloo owns the line to Devon and Cornwall, and trains up to Birmingham go from a mix of Marylebone and Euston – but Paddington controls the train services to the mid-west of England and South Wales. That means everything between the two lines to Swindon-Bristol-Cardiff-Swansea and Oxford-Worcester-Hereford, including of course Cheltenham, Gloucester, Evesham and lots of little stations like Moreton in Marsh on the Cotswold Line. We take our wonderful station for granted – and certainly on a busy Friday at 4.50pm when the 7-carriage diesel train has been replaced by a three-carriage “Sprinter” it’s not a lot of fun – but actually we’re greatly blessed to have this lovely Victorian masterpiece. The fact of the line itself, and the station, and its location close-though-not-quite-close-enough into London, are all basically due to the great Victorian engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel – and some day he will get a page of his own alongside the one already devoted to Paddington Station.


Paddington Station

A quiet moment on platform 5, looking across to the Hereford train on platform 7.

As well as the train station, of course, there’s the Underground, made more complex here by the presence of the Bakerloo Line and the new spiral of the Circle Line. The map below attempts, in typical London Transport way, to tell us it’s all a bit complex, with various parts sort-of connected to each other but also sort-of separate. This is pretty-well true, and should certainly warn you that there may be issues if you plan to transfer quickly from one to the other; but what it doesn’t tell you is the layout “on the ground”. In reality the brown Bakerloo Line station is down next to the green/yellow one and they’re technically one station, whereas the pink/yellow one is stranded up north on its own. And there’s no connection between them: you can walk, of course, but your Oyster card will charge you once out of, and once into, the charging area.

Our main interest here is the Hammersmith & City Line (the pink one), but in fact it has almost nothing that you could really call a station: it’s really just platforms 11 and 12 of the main Paddington Station. So here are some photos of the station as it sits on the green/yellow (Circle & District) lines, showing firstly that at last we’ve come to the land of the elegant Metropolitan Railway stations, and secondly that we’re only just below ground here.


The Circle / District Line Underground Station at Paddington

Typical mid-morning view on the platforms (i.e. after the rush hour)

And here is the not-very-impressive Bakerloo Line Station. The back wall at least has the characteristic dark red ceramic tiles; but as you can see, the entrance itself is coated with some totally unpleasant blue ones. It all looks so ripe for a facelift that I can only hope it’ll all get made-over as part of the Crossrail works.


The ghastly street entrance to the Bakerloo Line…

…and the slightly better dark red tiles round the corner

It all looks so ripe for a facelift that I can only hope it’ll all get made-over as part of the Crossrail works; happily the Hammersmith & City end at Paddington is also slated for a complete rebuild, so by then it should for the first time ever look like a proper station when seen from the street. At the moment all there is to see is a glitzy page on the Crossrail website; but let’s hope it all comes right. Meanwhile, down below, here are the usual station roundel and a shot of the pedestrian tunnel tiling put up in a major refurb in the 1980s. The patterns were trying to capture some of Brunel’s engineering genius, and it’s good to know that same talent keeps the whole show running even today.


Paddington Station roundel

Part of Brunel’s designs for the job of making tunnels (I think)

There’s a nice walk at canal-level to the next station, Edgware Road – but our run above ground takes us past St Mary’s Hospital. I’m never convinced with these grand Victorian edifices whether they look comfortingly grand or hopelessly dirty and draughty; they’re usually also surrounded by rather less impressive additions from the 1930s and – if you’re really lucky – some brutal concrete bunker from the 1970s. The health service and the hospitals themselves evidently also struggle to know what’s best, and in practice the grander blocks often seem given over to museums or study facilities. St Mary’s has vast amounts of buildings round the back and claims to be able to fix just about anything that’s wrong with you – but for sheer Sir Lancelot Spratt arrogance you could hardly beat the Clarence Wing…

Sir Lancelot Spratt is of course one of the heroes of Doctor in the House, a “hilarious” British comedy film made in 1954. It is, actually, still funny today – though perhaps mainly so to my  generation who grew up seeing it on TV every few months. There’s a marvellous clip from it here, filmed I think at University College London – which we’ll meet later on.

Before we leave…here’s a little mews scene down one of the backstreets, taken during the Olympic time. Just to show we can, on occasion, get the flags out and really enjoy being British!



Edgware Road

Drawing closer to Edgware Road I looked for anything to reflect the elegance of the canal that meanders gently by; but it seems to be dominated by a huge new development. It’s not unpleasant – in fact the round shape is quite appealing – but it’s certainly big. And it’s rather more elegant than the London Hilton Metropole, which does little to calm the senses.

Edgware Road is another place with two Tube stations: this time they’re even further away from each other, and in fact fall on opposite sides of the Westway, so they’re a real puzzle for the unwary. We’ll start with the Bakerloo Line one, in the usual dark red ceramic tiling, though also sporting a blue canopy here as if its separateness really needs stressing; and, just down the road, the horrid London Hilton Metropole.


Edgware Road (Bakerloo Line) Station, with an unusual blue canopy

London Hilton Metropole

Down below, the station, like many on the Bakerloo, maintains the dim feel of the early 1900s.

With that out of the way, we can scuttle through the traffic and take a look at the Hammersmith & City Line station. Another one in Metropolitan Railway style, its cheerful white ceramic front washes round a street corner and creates a generous welcoming presence. Inside it’s a bit tatty – it’s just a suburban wooden station – but there we go.

The sides of the station are particularly rewarding, like the tiling shown here around a round window. Meanwhile for those who need art to be more “in yer face” there’s a statue of a window cleaner looking up at the task that surrounds him. Looking at him, I can’t believe anyone gets fat by cleaning windows.


Pleasant tiling around the station windows

Cleanin’ Winders

Station Roundel

Over the road from the station is an amazing estate comprising the Oxford & Cambridge Mansions. A blast of exuberent brickwork, all painted crimson red, and redolent of the 1890s – these are archetypical “mansions” and are well sought after even now at prices of around £500,000. It does make me wonder what happens when the lease runs out in 2078, but that’s a problem, of course, all over London.

We’re now in the area officially called Marylebone, but always pronounced “Marly-bone”. Marylebone keeps a low profile, but it’s awash with expensive properties, solid businesses and a generally classy approach to life. This becomes obvious when you stumble on a shop whose only function is the selling of mirrors…huge mirrors…of the kind which grace the walls of huge properties. 


A shop solely devoted to large mirrors
 

Landmark



Baker Street

More to come…

 
  
  
  
  
  

Baker Street

Baker Street marks a very significant point. Not only is it a major confluence of different lines and tracks; it’s also our point of transition to the inside of the Circle Line. The buildings are suddenly grander, and we feel like we’ve finally arrived in Central London. More than that, this is also the point where the line genuinely becomes the Jubilee Line rather than simply what the Bakerloo and Metropolitan left behind. And best of all, it’s where Sherlock Holmes lives!

Before we visit the great man let’s just note a couple of grand buildings to the north of the station. Glentworth Street is a blast of Victorian brick-and-stonework, filling both sides of a tight, tidy street. Stand in the middle and you feel you’re in a different world – collegiate, castled, communitied in some way; and certainly with access to domestic servants. A rigidity which is forbidding and yet organised at the same time.


Glentworth Street – oh so solid late Victorian

On Baker Street itself we find an elegant 1930s building which used to be the headquarters of the Abbey National Building Society, though it was probably originally put up by a predecessor institution. The Abbey National used to be a genuine old-style Building Society – basically a savings bank which lent money for mortgages on houses – but as the sector “opened up” in the 1980s the Abbey turned itself into a rapacious commercial bank which first ate up its traditional borrowers and then started on the rest of the markets. The Wikipedia article on the Abbey National is fairly scathing, noting among other offences that the Abbey extended the lives of some mortgages by 15 years without even telling the borrowers this had happened. Personally I recall the Abbey trying to sell me a very dodgy endowment mortgage which would never have come right – so there’s a certain pleasure in thinking the Abbey itself has now been gobbled up by the less-than-wonderful Santander.

In this land of mergers and takeovers the Abbey National moved out of this building at some point, and and it’s now been refurbished for the 21st century.

                    
A lighthouse for security, and a defending angel sort of person – both good images for a Building Society

The other claim this building has to fame is that it is, legally, on the site of 221 Baker Street – the home of the great detective. In reality the building covers more than one plot, so the occupants have tended to use a different number – after all, who would want to deal with shedloads of mail to a fictitious detective? But for many years mail addressed to “Sherlock Holmes” was delivered here and the Building Society maintained a small department to handle the correspondence.

Nowadays, just up the road is the Sherlock Holmes Museum, so do they get the mail instead? Well, their claims to legitimacy have taken a while to establish. For a start the museum is not at 221 but 239 Baker Street – though you won’t see that number anywhere on their door. There’s a curious question of labelling here, and Westminster City Council have apparently allowed the museum to adopt the number 221b. But whether they’ve achieved this by relabeling the plot (after all, plots don’t have to run sequentially up the road) or simply by renaming the house (like calling the house at plot 3 “Number Five”) isn’t clear.

More controversy accumulates round the museum with the knowledge that Conan Doyle’s family didn’t like the idea of a museum at all; and the Blue Plaque on the wall is definitely a fake. Blue Plaques are reserved for real people or events – and the English Heritage Blue Plaque website certainly doesn’t include this one. But everything else here is fake too, so there we go… the Wikipedia article on the Sherlock Holmes Museum makes it quite clear how we should approach this place by saying this is a “popular privately-run museum”. Best thing is simply to pay the entry fee and enjoy it.


The Sherlock Holmes Museum at 239 “221B Baker Street”

The fake blue plaque

I haven’t actually been into the museum but I guess I’ll go someday…so meanwhile let’s get back to something undoubtedly real, Baker Street station itself. The station is an oddity in that it’s a huge edifice and intersection point, yet no mainline rail services stop here. There are however a lot which pass nearby and stop at Marylebone, so there’s plenty of scope for congestion: and Baker Street Station is quite busy enough handling five Tube lines – the Bakerloo, Metropolitan, Circle, Jubilee and Hammersmith & City.


Baker Street Station

Five Tube lines run through here

Threading your way through the station is quite a challenge, partly because there are curious bits of interest and history strewn along the way. Signs like the “Platform 5” one below are presumably original, though equally they could have been recreated for a period drama.


Traditional old sign

Station Roundel, though not yet from a Jubilee Line platform!

Out on the Euston Road we’re ready to march off into Central London, but not before we’ve taken in a bronze statue of Sherlock and paused to marvel at Madame Tussaud’s. I say “marvel”, but I really mean “marvel that so many people pay so much to such a greedy international corporation which has closed down the only part of the attraction that was really worth seeing – namely the London Planetarium”. Although the Planetarium’s 45-minute shows were usually full, Tussauds have a corporate policy of piling attractions together and then making you pay a huge lot of money to see everything. In some way this means everyone has to spend only a short time on everything, and unfortunately the planetarium didn’t fit this model: the shows used to last over an hour, only 30% of the visitors ever got in to see them, and so “70% didn’t get their full money’s worth”.

How to deal with this problem? Well, obviously not by cutting the entry charge for the 70% who only wanted to see the waxworks. Instead, Tussaud’s have closed a unique educational institution and filled the dome with yet more waxworks. 100% of visitors now go round the whole lot in 10 minutes, and don’t essentially have their minds stretched at all. Just to add insult they’ve filled it with “Stars” and re-named it the Star Dome, which just seems to emphasise what a pathetic state our celebrity culture’s in.

Sadly this is typical of this company: I remember about 25 years ago visiting Wookey Hole in Dorset, paying a vastly inflated amount to get in, and then on the way out having to walk through a tedious circus museum, a boring paperworks and a whole lot of other rubbish. The company running it? Madame Tussauds, of course.

By the way, the standard adult entry charge is now a whopping £28.80 or £31.30 if you want flexibility about the time (which many will), or £43.80 if you want to give someone a ticket as a gift and leave them to pick their own day for going to London. Yes, that’s £43.80, which is suspiciously close to $70 in US money. A further option is to buy a joint ticket with the London Eye – yes, they’ve grabbed that too – and the standard adult charge is again £43.80. Welcome to rip-off London.


“Which way to the Metropolitan Line? That’s a one pipe problem”

Sadly no longer the London Planetarium

The London Planetarium was of course a worthy institution in its own right – but it’s particularly memorable for John Ebdon, its former director. Ebdon had never really tained at anything, but somewhere along the way he’d picked up lots of skills and learning, including things like “how to direct a planetarium” (which may not have been challengingly academic, if you think about it.)

Ebdon used to do a brilliant little 15-minute thinkpiece show for BBC Radio 4. It was only broadcast on the first Monday of the month at 8.45am, so it always came as a pleasant surprise – and its material was simply bizarre or silly observations about everyday life wrapped up in a philosophical blanket. His cat Perseus was often featured, and he always signed off with a self-deprecating “oh well, if you have been – thanks for listening”. You got the impression he’d just wandered in off the street and was grateful for the airtime – so it was a sad loss when he died in 1995.



Great Portland Street

More to come…

Before we head for Euston we’ll give a nod to Euston Tower, currently home to the dreaded HMRC (Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs) and the even more awful WS Atkins. Capital Radio were also based here for 24 years, their presence making it a well-known landmark. When first developed it was seen as a model of airy, progressive building – its plan is a very formal offset cross, maximising the amount of light – though Pevsner notes that like Centre Point it, and the underpass nearby, also constituted a notorious case of developers evading the loose planning processes of the time. Refurbished by Arup in the 1990s, it seems to be settling into a graceful middle age as one of the better 1960s buildings in London.


Euston Tower, outpost of Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs and WS Atkins


Euston Square

We’re now approaching the mess of trains and tunnels that is the Euston-St Pancras-Kings Cross complex. You’d think a huge coming-together of Tube, Rail and other services would be well-planned to allow easy interchange between them, but at usual you’d be wrong: in reality it’s all a grand old British nightmare. These days (it’s only taken a 100 years) the mainline stations do at least have half-way decent access to the deep-level Northern, Victoria and Piccadilly Lines – and in fact there seems to be more tunnel than solid ground beneath these stations. But if for any reason you want to transfer between the mainline stations, or to find anything which might connect them together, it’s not so good.

The Hammersmith & City claims to do the connecting job, but it’s an annoyingly long walk to anywhere and the reality is that none of the three mainline stations is really ‘on’ the Hammersmith & City Line. Euston in particular is well separate from it, which leaves Euston Square station as London’s way of saying to tourists ‘get off the big train at Euston, drag your suitcases down a block and a half of busy urban streets, and catch the Tube at this poky little nowhere.’

On the north side of Euston Road there’s a scruffy little entrance where one sign seems to have lost sight of the Hammersmith & City altogether…


A rather uninspiring little place

….and the Hammersmith & City, actually

On the south side, a recent rebuilding seems to provide proper access and a better feeling of the 21st century.


The new Euston Square Station

Just down the road is University College, which usually styles itself as UCL. London University is really a federation of colleges like Oxford and Cambridge, so the name University attached to this college is misleading – University College is but one part of the University, and is not the entirety of it. But this College was originally founded as London University, as a rival to Kings College; so you could understand them being a bit miffed when in 1836 they were formally federated together with Kings and demoted to being a mere College.

The rivalry between Kings and University College runs deep since Kings was founded as a religious institution, heavily tied to not only Christianity but Anglicanism and the Establishment: University by contrast was founded as an alternative for those who couldn’t sign up to Anglican or indeed religious ways – so it’s always been a home of non-conformists, other faiths and atheists. But the federating structure was successful in gathering up a lot more institutions like Royal Holloway, Birkbeck and Goldsmiths, so in time the rivalry got smoothed out a bit. As things stand today there are 9 main collegiate institutions, various central establishments like the School of Oriental and African Studies, and a host of other associated bits scattered round the UK and the rest of the world. The University of London now reckons to have about 135,000 students, which sounds like an awful lot of partying.

But the call for independence has never been far away, along with the question whether the federating structure really brought advantages or was just an extra layer of nuisance. Imperial College, once a major part of the show, opted to go independent in 2007; Kings and some of the others now award their own degrees; and the university has closed down its formal ‘Convocation’ of all former students since it didn’t seem to have any clear identity. A sign of the same tendency has been the Colleges marketting themselves almost as Universities in their own right, so now we get “Birkbeck University of London”, Royal Holloway University of London” etc. You might think the odd comma wouldn’t go amiss here, but the point is clearly to make people think each of these institutions is big enough, broad enough and of sufficient quality to stand on its own against other universities. There’s no real doubt about this – the constituent parts have always largely been self-governing and have long been treated separately in league tables and by funding bodies – but it leaves the question hanging just what the central University structure is for. I guess we’ll know it really has all fallen apart when UCL reverts back to “London University”.


University College London (UCL)

The brand new University College Hospital

Kings and UCL were both active in the study of health from their early days, and both run huge and famous hospitals. UCL’s is colocated with the main campus in St Pancras; Kings College Hospital is nowadays in Brixton, which matches Kings’ general drift to stake out territory south of the river. When it comes to buildings both hospitals have the usual mix of the good, the bad and the ugly, though UCL is perhaps a little way ahead. A huge new white-and-green block is now the main base, though they still operate some services out of a horrid 1960s concrete bit. But the most interesting part of the estate is the Victorian ‘Cruciform’ building – literally a huge brick X with all sorts of little twiddly bits. It’s the sort of place you could spend days exploring, though happily nowadays it houses biomedical research rather than active hospital services.


Three ages of University College Hospital

The Victorian “Cruciform” building

Around this area there’s a huge lot more “university”. Some day it may even get a page here of its own, but for the moment let’s just stop to admire the University’s Senate House, which is another work by our old friend Charles Holden (he who did many of the most lovable stone and brick Tube stations). Though most of his work was simply at Tube Station scale, he did do two major buildings which still stand majestic and commanding, and which show he was no mean architect: the Senate House and the Broadway headquarters of London Transport. Putting them together, the similarities are obvious – though the Senate House is perhaps even more austere and doesn’t have the rude statues by Jacob Epstein that are so obvious at Broadway.

From 1931 to 1957 the Senate House was the tallest building in London, though even then it was only one part of a much bigger scheme that Holden had dreamed up for the University. Aspiring to house itself in buildings fit for the primary University of the British Empire – and therefore of the whole world – the scheme ran for a couple of city blocks and would have had at least two of these, as well as a number of lower blocks. Sadly money and opportunity ran out: but what we’re left with is fantastic in its own right.

That said, opinion is divided. Pevsner describes its style as a “strangely semi-traditional, undecided modernism” and compares it unfavourably to the Tube stations: and words like “Stalinism” and “Totalitarianism” also hang around it. But on the whole it’s liked. Personally I think it’s glorious, though I’m not sure about the thick white rib down the middle.

Coming back to the main drag, there’s always a treat at the Wellcome Collection. I spent many years thinking what a silly place this must be that couldn’t even spell its own name properly, but in recent years I’ve learned it’s a fabulously wealthy medical charity which, as well as its main function of medical research, does a brilliant job educating the public with exhibitions on topics like Spit, Dirt and Brains. I have no photos here, but I’d strongly recommend a visit to the Wellcome Collection Website.

Over the road is the fabulously dull Euston Station. Like its neighbours St Pancras and Kings Cross, Euston was a mighty terminus in the age of the Victorian rail barons; like the other two it suffered in the 1960s, and of the three it came off worst. The original was a rather nondescript Victorian train shed but fronted by a mighty classical arch (technically it’s a propyleum, meaning a gateway – not an arch), but this got flattened to make way for a bus station, boring modernist office blocks, and a dreadfully inadequate railway station. OK, so the arch served no useful purpose and was really just a traffic obstruction – and I dare say the train shed behind it wasn’t much good – but what a shame to have knocked it down and replaced it with this lot. The final insult is that there’d have been plenty of space to leave it standing…but the fashion of the times was against it.


Some of the old is still there…
 

…but it’s sadly compromised by all the buses
 

The original Euston Station with its grand propyleum
 

Not that unpleasant…until you consider what was there before
 

As with Centre Point I have to confess that I rather like the 60s black granite and stainless steel now it’s been cleaned up – it has a look of expensive minimalism and is one of Richard Seifert’s better contributions to London – but I’m also sympathetic to the view that the demolition of the original station was one of the worst architectural crimes of the 20th century. It led directly to the establishment of the Victorian Society as a movement to preserve our wonderful 19th century buildings… and nowadays we’re talking of a vast redevelopment of the whole area. There’s even a campaign to rebuild the Euston Arch!

Back on the south side of the road is St Pancras New Church, a grand affair but with a strange air of neglect and sadness. It would benefit from about £5 million spent on it, and probably an extra 300 in the congregation – though I suspect even then it would feel rather out of place. 

The parish used to cover a large area extending from Highgate to Oxford Circus, with its main church further north: but Central London just kept growing, and this New Church was built to accommodate them. In time this one became the main parish church and the old one fell into disuse; but as the population continued to increase the later Victorians split the parish and restored the Old Church. They did this so radically that the Old Church is now essentially a lot newer than the New one, though confusingly they did it in a sort of Norman revival ragstone style which makes it look older. The Old Church now occupies a nice patch of green at the back of St Pancras International Station, and looks rather more prosperous than the New one.


St Pancras New Church

St Pancras Old Church: actually most of it is newer, but it looks older

The design here is solidly Greek Revival from about 200 years ago: the tower is based on the Tower of the Winds, and there are even a couple of weird little extensions (in Greek terms they’re called ‘Tribunes’) based on the Erechtheum. That’s the idea, at least – but the tower seems a bit feeble and the Tribune on Euston Road looks mildly ridiculous and very dirty. Apparently they’ve tried cleaning it up, but 200 years on the Euston Road means it just won’t come any whiter – and anyway, as you hurtle past at 30 mph, what is it for? The answer in its day was that that that great red door (it’s actually bronze) led to burial vaults, where one could be buried at significant cost. The pews in the church were also available for rent – which all fed into the Victorian genius for working out how the continuing ministry of the church should be paid for. Nowadays we do the same thing by a process of guilt and hints – but I doubt that we do it anything like so effectively.

The rather tired feeling continues inside, though as the photo below shows, it’s not that bad. In many ways it’s all just like many other central London churches – a mix of history, post-war restoration and a generally cheap attempt to ‘carry on under all circumstances’ – but with the corny 1960s ceiling tiles, the tired noticeboards, the rather naff ’60s light fittings and the general ‘stripped’ feel, it all seems to point in one direction. You come away feeling it could do with either an Alpha-course revival or some classical music enthusiasts moving in.


The weird little extension with its Caryatids
 

Inside, it’s Greek Revival combined with tired 20th century

A last look at the west front

Apart from the big attractions, the Euston Road is starting to get a bit tatty by now as it approaches the despair of Kings Cross. But a couple of last gasps of delight are yet in store: the British Library and St Pancras Station.

The British Library is an utter treat: always interesting, a place where I could happily spend a large amount of money, and – well, why have just one Magna Carta when you can have four?

Like most other public institutions in London, it had a long journey to where it is now. You could say it’s not big enough, or that it’s too big; or that the site is the wrong place, or that the building’s ugly, or that the project was badly managed… on the other hand there’s a good argument that just for once we got this one about right. That may be more due to good luck than great planning, but there we are.

It’s not as big as the French Bibliotheque National – but theirs is massively over-sized, particularly for the internet age. And it doesn’t have a glorious site all on its own – but it does fill a hole in Euston rather well, and its public square is very pleasant indeed. It doesn’t match the fairytale style of St Pancras’s Station next door, but then nothing could – and it does echo the colour of the bricks and stand rather well as a respectful neighbour. And tellingly, Pevsner says it’s the only late 20th century public building of any note.

Here’s a link to the main British Library website.


The British Library, with its new public space

St Pancras floats, like a fairytale castle, behind


Kings Cross St Pancras

Our journey through the transport hub isn’t quite over yet: we still have to navigate St Pancras and Kings Cross Stations. These and Euston were of course the first arrivals, and the Tube lines since then have had to squeeze in rather inelegantly between them.

In the days of Victorian business enthusiasm various railway companies built into London and developed great stations and hotels at the London ends of their lines. They made little effort to join these up – after all they were founded on competition – so the result is that even today there are about 14 mainline railway termini in London, and we rely on the Tube to connect them together. As a result, even now it’s murder catching a train from one side of Britain to the other if the route goes anywhere near London.

St Pancras claims to be the terminal for lines to the north, but this really means the northern Midlands, the North West and Glasgow. To my mind Kings Cross is the terminal for the “true” north, meaning Newcastle, the North East and Edinburgh.

St Pancras is now also the international terminal for the Eurostar train, which has meant that at last it’s an economic proposition to restore its glorious Victorian gothic hotel and station frontage. It’s now been re-furbished at vast expense and is a Marriott Renaissance hotel…and as expected, it’s a cracker. The whole building is now recognised as a masterpiece of its kind, and whatever the actual limitations of the heating system and the Victorian corridors you can’t fail to be impressed. It’s all the more shocking, then, to think that British Rail neglected it shockingly and had every intention of doing a Euston on it; and all credit to Sir John Betjeman and the Victorian Society for saving it.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ready for the Olympics
 

The Champagne Bar
 

The gorgeous Booking Office doorway
 

Sir John Betjeman surveys it all
 

This is how to arrive in a foreign city!

A wonderful detail from the roof

The restoration job is all the more astonishing because they’ve actually hollowed out the base of the station, stuck in a vast number of shops and restaurants, and made the trains come in – at original platform level – above them all. It makes the whole place a palace of amazing ideas and views; the more so because trains run regularly from here to Paris (2 hours 20) or Brussels (4 hours 15). Who would ever have thought it?

Kings Cross Station next door is a plain affair by contrast, built by Lewis Cubitt, youger brother of Thomas (who built most of the better parts of Pimlico.) When it opened, the directors of the London and North Eastern Railway Company rejoiced that the very minimum amount of money had been spent on their grand London terminus. Add to this the comparison with St Pancras next door, the awful 1970s extension to the frontage, the effects of an IRA Bomb in 1973, and the generally seedy surrounding neighbourhood, and it’s no wonder that for many year Kings Cross was roundly hated and despised. But now it’s being cleaned up, the clutter is being removed, a huge new entrance hall is being built, and there is some chance that we’ll come to appreciate it as a plain but fundamentally decent structure.


The main frontage
 

The huge new extension at the side
 

A detail of the roof – not quite St Pancras!

The basically decent look now it’s been cleaned up

Here’s a bigger shot of the area at the front of King’s Cross station, showing the last days of the horrible green-fronted extension from the 1970s. The plan is to clear all of this away and leave a nice public space with the old station standing gracefully behind it, along with huge amounts of regeneration and new housing in the surrounding area. If they also manage to deal with the prostitution, the drugs and all the other dross that currently hangs around…well, it might just be rather nice.

* Central St Martins & Degree Show

Regents Canal

Somewhere round the back of all this was the place I’d originally set out to find – namely St Pancras Old Church.

Pancras was apparently a Roman boy whose family converted to Christianity, and who himself espoused the faith so enthusiastically that the emperor Diocletian got to hear of it. The emperor demanded that Pancras recant, at least as far as offering a sacrifice to the Roman gods – and when he refused, Diocletian had him beheaded. All this happened in the year AD 304, which means his story must have spread fast given that there was a church on this site dedicated to him in AD 314 – just ten years later. Being young (he died at 14) and male, and healthy, he gets wrapped in with various soldier-saints and is nowadays prayed to for good health and employment. He must be busy at the moment.

As usual, if you want more there are the Wikipedia Article on St Pancras and the Wikipedia Article on St Pancras Old Church.

The parish here used to cover a large area extending from Highgate to Oxford Circus, with its main church here at the northern end of the paris: but at some point the population moved away towards Kentish Town, probably because the land was higher and drier.  Central London just kept growing, though, and St Pancras New Church was built down on the Euston Road to accommodate them. In time that one became the main parish church and the old church fell into disuse; but as the population continued to increase still further, the later Victorians split the parish and resurrected the Old Church.

Being Victorians, they did this so radically that the Old Church is now in some ways a lot newer than the New one, at least on the outside: though confusingly they did it in a sort of Norman revival ragstone style which makes it look older. So the Old Church now occupies a nice patch of green at the back of St Pancras International Station, and at least from the outside looks rather more prosperous than the New one.

It takes a bit of work to find the church, but yes – there is a patch of green somewhere behind St Pancras Station, and on a nice day it’s even quite airy and peaceful (and not just, as you might fear, the usual dank miserable gap between surrounding buildings that you often get in London.) That said, I did see a lad relieving himself quite publicly there – but (probably for the best) I didn’t manage to get my camera out quickly enough to capture the moment. 

The churchyard contains a number of impressive and strange sights including the very grand Burdett-Coutts monument with its very own sundial, and the “Hardy Tree”. This reflects the fact that this was once, and still is in fact, quite a nice area: it just suffered the horrible indignities of having three very busy stations with their associated vast railway yards dumped on top of it. The Hardy Tree is noteworthy because it’s surrounded with old tombstones; and it’s associated with the novelist Thomas Hardy because as a young man he worked around here as an architect, and the tombstones were piled up here during his time. Why it didn’t occur to anyone that in due course the tree’s roots would push all the tombstones around and the whole thing would become an impenetrable mass I don’t know – or perhaps it did: I certainly can’t imagine Hardy himself didn’t see it coming. And nowadays people come from far and near to see this ‘wonder’.


The Burdett-Coutts Memorial

The “Hardy Tree”

Baroness Burdett-Coutts was a generous philanthropist in her time, though the name Coutts suggests she probably made sure she had plenty left over. I was interested to come across a gravestone which recorded on its rear her generosity in sponsoring the restoration of its front – presumably something of great historical importance. So imagine the shock of discovering the front is once more completely weathered and impossible to decipher…!


Baroness Burdett-Coutts paid for the restoration of….

…oh dear…this!

Finally we come to the church itself. As I’ve already said, the outside at least is all Victorian, though it’s trying to look Norman: the inside, by contrast, has a genuinely mediaeval feel, though sadly that’s because it’s rather messy and a bit smelly. The general impression isn’t helped – no, honestly, high church friends, it really isn’t – by seeing it still full of incense as it was when I dropped by on Sunday morning.


St Pancras Old Church

Interior, with added smelly mist

Be nice to them, I thought, and to be fair one or two of them did try. A very tedious old man latched on to me and started walking me round the church, pointing out everything of any remote interest and finishing at the “6th century altar stone” set into the altar. Now history is all very well, but there is of course also a Tractarian game going on here: the Church of England bans stone altars in favour of wooden Communion Tables, but if you’re serious about the “real sacrifice” you lay a bit of stone into the wooden top: then when you cover the whole thing with a cloth, who would ever know there’s really an “altar” there? And who could possibly object when the stone is a genuine 6th century altar-stone which predates that whole Reformation business…? Well, it looked a pretty tatty old bit of stone to me.

Among those who didn’t try at all, the coffee team were clearing away and didn’t say hello even though they serve coffee in the front porch of the church and I’d walked in right past them. It was left to me to ask if I could salvage the dregs from their cafetiere, and to me to ask for a piece of their cake. And to me to proffer a rather lavish £2 for it all.

Worse was to come. I thought having paid for my refreshments I could at least use their loo – but as I came back out the vicar caught me and started on a rant about cyclists coming in and using their toilet. I should have said “I’ve paid for this, matey, in your crimplene sparkly cassock” but I was so surprised I didn’t fight back…I just scarpered, making a mental note that if I’m ever appointed as a Church Commissioner faced with shutting churches down I won’t bust a gut to keep this place open.

So…moving on quickly…the next part of my journey meant striking out east of Kings Cross and heading for Farringdon. Handled properly, this also allows for exploring London’s most famous ‘hidden river’, namely the River Fleet, which starts Hampstead, passes through Kings Cross and then follows the Farringdon Road down to Blackfriars. The river still runs, but it’s almost entirely built over – not least by the Farringdon Road itself, which is an amazing Victorian creation shoved in on top of the mediaeval city. Some day I’ll write up the whole River Fleet trip, but for the moment we’ll join it as it runs down to Farringdon.

But how do you detect the route of an underground river? It turns out there are two clues which together get you about 90% of the way there: firstly rivers naturally run at the bottoms of valleys, so you should head for the lowest part of the ground, and secondly since the river marked the boundary between two districts (here it’s Islington and Camden) look for the change of district on the street signs. Neither of these is completely reliable, because as the river got built over some adjustments were made to both the terrain and the district boundaries; and there’s the added complication that some of this is Clerkenwell, which is part of Finsbury, which is itself part of Islington – but with the help of a historic map you can generally work it out.

I set off cautiously, determined to explore and document every single place of any interest at all. This may explain why after a whole day I only really covered the ground up to one more Tube Station (Farringdon); but there we go. It was a very good day out, nonetheless. 

 

I hadn’t got very far, though, before I resdicovered somewhere I’d been to earlier in the year: the Gagosian Gallery. Bond Street is generally the place for art, but in the great explosion of everything into radically unfashionable areas, the Gagosian’s main base is now a rather unfashionable warehouse down a back street near King’s Cross. Don’t be fooled, though – they’ve got acres of space, good access for skipping truckloads of stuff in and out, and no-one objects to a building that’s festooned with high tech security. And the surrounding area is seriously on the ‘up’, anyway, if indeed it was ever ‘down’ to say you lived in Clerkenwell, Islington, Camden, Finsbury or the newly-redeveloped Kings Cross.

The subject of the exhibition was Damian Hurst’s spot paintings, which (to me at least) draw their thinking from three sources: (a) the study of colour, and references to paint colour charts, (b) theories on the perception of colour by the eye and the mind; and (c) a reference, at least, to Hirst’s other obsession with pharmacies and medical drugs. That said, ‘you could certainly do this at home’, and indeed I have. It’s not entirely trivial to replicate one of these – you have to think a little about the relative sizes of the spots and the white space in between, and a little more about what colours to use – but basically it’s fairly easy. That didn’t stop people turning out to see the exhibition, though.

I enjoyed looking at the paintings…well, of course I did; I even went round a second and a third time. But we weren’t allowed to photograph them. We were, however, allowed to photograph more general scenes, showing the people going round the exhibition – and that of course was rather more fun, particularly since it includes two types of people: on the one hand the eager, committed visitors; and on the other the detached, looming staff. Are these guys there for security? Are they art students? Are they bored out of their wits or really quite excited by it all? How much so they get paid? We never know – and they’re always, inevitably, tall, razor-thin, dressed in black, vaguely threatening and foreign-looking.


Let’s see how far I can slide my leg out while I keep my back against the wall…

The visitors, happily, latched on to this curious approach to photography – and we made a point of posing for each other so we could get ‘touristy’ photos with the paintings in. The Dutch lady in the red coat below was particularly sociable…though I don’t think red is the right colour to go with a Damian Hirst.


 

 

Here’s a link to the main Gagosian website.

There’s plenty around this area that suggests it could still ‘improve’ a long way. Busy roads, endless shops advertising phone cards for countries half-way round the world, a sense that no-one actually loves anything here… and the remnants of former and current attempts to improve it. It’s all rather nasty, if you figure that in Dickens’ time and before then it was a lot worse, perhaps you can envisage it as a work in progress. When the River was basically used as a sewer for both household and industrial waste they didn’t build nice streets there with good quality housing: so although the Victorians with their passion for sorting things out ‘improved’ it radically, they left it with some way to go. The 20th century tried again, but even so there are patches where things don’t feel right.

It’s hard to know, though. Just down the road from the Gargosian is an old place, Derby Lodge. There’s a tidiness about it, but beyond that it looks pretty grim, and the one or two residents I saw looked pretty rough. Those ironwork brackets look rather contemporary with the bridges and viaducts in the Victorian road schemes further on, which suggests the plumbing may be pretty ancient. Yet a one-bedroom flat here will set you back about £300K – which presumably reflects its closeness to the stations and indeed to the City. Perhaps £315K is in fact rather cheap for this area, and this, the bottom of the market, gets let out to ‘social support’ cases… If so, it seems a heck of a lot of money, though we’ll see that just round the corner, you’d have a job getting anything for under £1M.


The rather dodgy Derby Lodge

Back on the main road there are the usual attempts at cheery infill, trying to suggest it’s a ‘happening’ area. The building on the left is perfectly standard round here – the usual multi-level brick construction with tidy sensible windows has served ‘working London’ well for the last 300 years – but someone in the early 2000s thought it clever to add a concrete box and clad it with this appalling aluminium. It claims to be a ‘business generation centre’ , but it fact the quality of the skin here is so terrible it makes you doubt the whole project. The front isn’t even properly flat, the corners are badly made, and that sticky-out bit on the right merely masks an entry-way. Horrible. 

The church on the right is at least an honest building, though it doesn’t quite look a natural home for the UK Ethiopian Christian Fellowship Church. They looked a lively lot, though it seemed a bit cheeky to include them in the photo so I deliberately pointed my camera a bit skywards. Happily, though, some of their community were making a lot of noise in the street opposite, so here’s a shot you don’t see every day. Just look at those magnificent, er, shoes…


The UK Ethiopian Christian Fellowship Church

Hey – who he think he is, takin’ ar photo?

Their UK Ethiopian Christian Fellowship Church website is an interesting case – rather haphazard and disorganised as a text resource, but rich in downloadable sermons and music. And a good resource for news of their community like 36 Ethiopian Christians detained in Saudi Arabia for not being quite what the authorities would like them to be.

The main point of the party girls photo is, of course, to show the grade of the hills here: they’re really quite steep as they run up and down from the course of the river, but it’s only if you stop and think about it that you really understand what’s going on. Most of time you can treat London as fairly flat, though it isn’t really – and it’s sometimes quite eye-opening to think about the topography beneath your feet.

Crossing to the eastward side of the river we come into Clerkenwell, a long-established mediaeval parish (the name refers to an old holy well or Clerk’s Well), which from 1900 became part of the borough of Finsbury; Finsbury itself was in turn scooped up into the Borough of Islington in the 1960s. I mention this mainly because the three names get used rather interchangably (though I’m sure there are subtle class and status distinctions if you know them); and particularly because the street signs bear a variety of the names as used over the years. For our purposes, our trip essentially starts in Clerkenwell and then drifts on to what was properly the Old Finsbury.


Clerkenwell. Or maybe Finsbury. In Islington

Clerkenwell Houses

 
  

Clerkenwell General

 

Bevin Court

A bomb drops in Clerkenwell, an area of dignified terraced houses built of yellow London Stock brick with stone trimmings, and leaves a bit of a mess. So what do you build there? A horrible “pile ’em high” creation called Bevin Court, that’s what.

To be honest it’s not that bad…it was designed and built by Tecton and Lubetkin, some of the best exponents of modern architecture (we met them at the Cranbrook Estate near Mile End on the Central Line) so it shouldn’t be too awful. But they were working in post-war austerity, and many of the elements they’d normally include (balconies, communal facilities…) were ruled off the agenda.

Apparently Lenin lived on this site for a while, so it nearly got named Lenin House: in the event it picked up the name of Ernest Bevin, who was Foreign Secretary at the time and a staunch anti-communist. The building is now Grade II Listed, has its own Wikipedia article on Bevin Court, and has reportedly recently been refurbished. Goodness knows how bad it must have looked before they got started…

As for the entry sign…well that’s just AWFUL!

River Fleet

* St Mark, Clerkenwell

Cycling through Clerkenwell I noticed a rather nice tower sticking up over the houses, so it inevitably became an aiming point even though I hadn’t planned a stop there. It turned out to be St Mark’s Church…so what might we find? Well, something that shows us the perils of being in the ‘middle’, or ‘not anybody’s particularly concern’, I’m afraid.

Let’s start with Colin’s scale for Types of Church. This only really applies to Anglican churches, but on them it’s quite accurate – so on a scale of 1 to 5 I assess them as:

  1. Lively Evangelical of the Charismatic / Alpha variety, verging sometimes on loony.
  2. Committed low-church Evangelical but not Charismatic. Perhaps a bit sleepy, perhaps ‘conservative evangelical’ in the Christ Church Mayfair, or St Helen’s Bishopsgate sense (and, let’s admit it, basically where I fit.)
  3. Right smack bang middle Anglican. ‘Middle’ is a misleading term, and many who score 4 here think they’re ‘middle’. It also goes with a devotion to the 1662 Prayer Book, Common Worship as if it were something to be proud of, and ‘good musical tradition’
  4. Anglican but a bit devoted to processions, candles and possibly incense. They think they’re ‘middle’, because they compare themselves with the truly fanatical anglo-catholics: but most evangelicals would put at least stage 3 between themselves and many London churches who are 4s.
  5. Rampant loony Anglo-Catholic.

I have to admit my scale ranges basically from loony to loony, partly on the grounds that both ends put their own particular doctrine before dealing with “real people’s life and good common sense” which after all is what Anglicanism was created for. There are good people, of course, all over the scale, but it does reflect quite well how things lie particularly in London. One interesting curiosity is that when it comes to women’s ministry, the main hold-outs are in 2 and 5. Alpha churches, with their innate attraction both to and for the rising professional classes, never seem to have problems with women in ministry; while some of the thoughtful, rational conservative evangelicals seem still to be holding on to a very traditional view.

So where is St Mark’s? To my mind the answer is ‘trying to be both 3 and 4’, and the church itself seems to agree. Its website claims on the one hand that it is a typically Anglican parish, neither Anglo-Catholic nor Evangelical (putting it at 3) – but then it says the Sunday liturgy is ‘modern catholic’ (which argues towards 4). Whatever the answer, this seems to combine with a few other disadvantages including a lack of, and an obsession with, fund-raising. And I don’t think it helps that they’re yoked with Holy Redeemer down in Finsbury, a church so obsessively anglo-catholic that anything here would look a bit half-measures by comparison. Their shared parish priest is already most of the way to Rome, so they’re sort of compelled to be on the high side of ‘middle’ but probably get little thanks for it.

Try it for yourself at the St Mark’s Clerkenwell website, where you’ll get get the impression it’s all been a bit of a struggle. They had side-galleries but took them down because they became unsafe (rather than pay up to make them safe); they took a terrible pounding during the war and lost the roof and all the plaster fell off the walls; it took 21 years just to get back in business, but the repairs were inelegantly done and the walls still aren’t plastered. (In the photo below I’ve cheated by lightening it as much as photoshop can get away with – but in reality it’s much much darker than this inside.) From 1970 they were threatened with closure, had interregnums, were joined rather two tightly with Holy Redeemer, and are still working out that relationship. You can just hear the Bishop’s Council saying ‘there’s no-one that really cares about St Mark’s; it doesn’t really stand for anything; we could shut it without too much bother’.  

The church smells horribly damp and musty, as if it’s on its way to closure; and every last corner seems to be cluttered with second-hand books and junk with prices on it, begging you to buy it to raise funds. The website says recently they’ve had an evangelical group from “Trinity” move in on Sunday afternoons… but actually the main benefit they identify from this is that the group’s rent will help pay the bills. Look over the St Mark’s website and it’s peppered with references to fund-raising – indeed the very first thing on the front page is a button that says ‘Donate’. It’s hard to know why you would.

It feels like a church that’s on its way to closure, though it also feels like this shouldn’t be allowed to happen. The church is big and is basically in good shape, it has a fantastic site in the middle of Myddleton Square, and it’s surrounded by houses worth many millions – so if it made the right pitch to the community it could surely put itself right. But in typical Anglican way it just muddles along serving a failing and dwindling community of old people and rather tired interests. They’ve even paired up with the Christian Meditation movement who use St Mark’s as a base – but frankly, that’s not going to make much dent in the £1-2M it would take to make this place really hum. It may be that St Mark’s is just too far gone to put it right…


St Mark, Clerkenwell

A very lightened-up photo of the interior

There are more photos at the church’s website, but they’re rather uniformly dull and make everything here (the posters, the notice, the equipment…) look well past its sell-by date. This is acommunity of people people hanging on, who use their old stuff without realising just how out-moded it all looks. The one real hope I found was in the stained glass – the East Window was paid for by the Metropolitan Water Board and was installed in 1962, presumably while everyone still thought the church was recovering from the war and had a future in front of it. It’s quite a knockout, depicting the Ascension with Christ centred in a gorgeous rainbow.


The lovely Ascension window

Christ ascended

Beyond that…well, a little piece from the centre of the window depicts, I think, someone like Wesley or Whitefield riding around about preaching the gospel: but there seems little of that in the streets around. Below that, a typical ‘middle’ reredos and high altar with really very little charm.


Wesley? Whitefield?

Despite the ‘I am…’, the message here is ‘boring and irrelevant’

Back near the west door, the church is blessed in having two rather large rooms either side of the porch. One is given over to the Christian Meditation movement (and was firmly locked; no meditation is allowed on Sunday afternoons) while the other is pictured below. There are clearly two categories of things in this room: decent ones which the lottery or the local council has paid for (mainly the kitchen, though I might include the elderly-friendly chairs) and the rest, which have got make-do-and mend St Mark’s written all over them – namely the curtains, the notice board, etc.


Amazing what lottery money can get you…

…including a bunch of ‘old folks home’ chairs

I hope they survive; I hope they find a mission; I hope it all comes right. It ought to possible to make this a plain, simple, honest middle-to-low Anglican church with beautiful plain white plastered walls and a great community around it. But I’m not confident.

Sadlers Wells

New River Head

City University

  

St James, Clerkenwell

* St Peter’s Italian

  

Holy Redeemer

Mount Pleasant

Finsbury Health Centre



Farringdon

More to come…

  


Barbican

Museum of London

Barbican

St Giles, Cripplegate

London Wall

Smithfield Market

  


Moorgate

Florin Court

Charterhouse

London Met University

Finsbury Circus

Highwalk

  


Liverpool Street

St Botolph without Bishopsgate

Turkish Restaurant

Broadgate Exchange

Broadgate Circle

201 Bishopsgate etc

Turkish Restaurant

All Hallows on the Wall

Heron Tower

Erotic Gherkin

Tower 42

St Helen Bishopsgate

St Ethelburga

St Andrew Undershaft

Bishopsgate Institute

Christ Church Spitalfields

Spitalfields buildings, art, market

St Botolph, Aldgate

  


Aldgate East

More to come…

Princelet Street

Whitechapel Gallery

Passmore Edwards Library

Whitechapel Bell Foundry



Whitechapel

More to come…

Awful Station

  


Stepney Green

More to come…

 
  
  


Mile End

More to come…



Bow Road

More to come…

St Paul, Bow Common

 


Bromley-by-Bow

Balfron Tower

Olympics

Bromley-by-Bow Tube Station? Yes, well it’s there somewhere in the background. But this is the busy A12 road, and it’s a bit awful. 

Down the track is Three Mills Island. Once the centre of a lot of hideous chemical industries, a lot of this has been reclaimed and made rather nice, though I still got shouted at when I mistakenly tried to cycle through a private yard. Three Mills itself is home to some genuine “mill” buildings, though these days they’re fitted out for small business. Three Mills Studios is rather famous as the home of Big Brother and various other TV shows: it also happens to be where the TV producer Peter Bazalgette has done a lot of work. He is, of course, a grandson of Sir Joseph, the master-engineer of London’s sewer system. 


 

 

There’s lots of derelict land around here, though it’s disappearing fast – the Olympic Park is just round the corner in Stratford and anywhere that’s empty at the moment is getting bought up and redeveloped at a frightening speed.

The water pumping station is the work of Sir Joseph Bazalgette, he who revolutionised London’s water and sewage systems in Victorian times in response to appalling outbreaks of cholera and to The Great Stink. Sometime I’ll give him a page of his own, but meanwhile here’s a link to the Wikipedia article on Sir Joseph Bazalgette. The pumping station has always been known as – for obvious reasons – the ‘Cathedral of Sewage’: more recently it’s been replaced by a new building, but thankfully the old one still stands. (If you have an appetite for more sewage, see the Baltimore Museum of Public Works.)


Bazalgette’s ‘Cathedral of Sewage’
 

The new ‘Cathedral of Sewage’
 

At least they’re trying

Not sure what this is meant to be, or if it’s meant to be like that


West Ham

West Ham as an area offers little more than the other areas around, though it does seem to have been substantially rebuilt more recently. Whether that makes it better I doubt, and it certainly has a fortress of a station. Presumably the size is because of the crowds from West Ham Football Club – but the general feeling does suggest one is being corralled rather than treated like a respectable citizen. On the day I was there it was also full of police and sniffer dogs, which didn’t improve the ambience much. One’s tempted to suggest…perhaps the locals all feel at home in a prison environment!

Just round the corner from the station there’s an outbreak of blokey street names. Since Jack Clow Road houses an evil-looking police base covered with antennas and warnings about fierce dogs I thought these might be officers who’d died in the course of their duties – after all, Jack Clow and Tom Nolan do sound like characters from a 1970s cop show. Sadly it turns out these guys were simply time-serving councillors who got to waste everyone’s money with streets named after them. Not for the first time, I’m left boggling at the arrogance of local politicians…



Plaistow (but pronounced ‘Plarstow’)

The urban landscape is a bit dismal round here. As a Sarf Londoner it’s no worse than some parts of Lambeth, but it seems to crowd in on you a bit…



Upton Park

Upton Park sounds a pleasant place – and indeed it’s not bad – but the main road outside the station is a bit grim. Among the ethnic-minority and working-class communities of the east end there’s a tendency to stand outside the station smoking some really rough tobaccos – my throat hasn’t felt so irritated by smokers in a long time!


Busy, busy, busy….

…but the residential streets are pleasant enough


East Ham

East Ham station is the last of the earlier generation of Tube stations, though I’m not sure the new complex awaiting us at Barking is any better.


East Ham, with an apparently meaningless street arch

Perhaps more like an old school than a station


Barking

Barking is widely known in the expression “Barking Mad”. Despite various stories about lunatic asylums hereabouts, it seems that it doesn’t doesn’t refer to Barking at all, but only to barking like a dog – but it’s certainly an evocative expression. I can’t help thinking of Charismatic Christian friends who “bark before the Lord” in worship… and yes, there are still some around who haven’t noticed it’s gone out of fashion. And there is also a real Bishop of Barking. A Barking Bishop. Could you make it up?!!

A more troubling fact about Barking is that it’s a centre of British National Party activity: indeed when I first passed through (2 days before the May 2010 General Election) there was a serious chance that they’d get their first MP here. The religious leaders of the town, including the Bishop, had just issued a condemnation of the BNP, but it wasn’t clear in the end how much effect that had. In the event, though, they didn’t get elected.

I stopped in Tesco’s here for a coffee and was rather amused by their “shallow trolleys” sign. Someone whose opinion I don’t respect once said I was a “terribly shallow person”.


Big but a bit threatening – Barking Station is part of this new complex

“you’re so shallow, Colin…”

Barking marks the eastern end of the Hammersmith & City Line: the District Line ploughs on for seven more stations to Upminster, but it goes there all on its own. Our journey is at an end – and I must say it’s been a lot longer than I ever expected. So farewell until we meet again!




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I snapped away quickly and then pedalled hard in the opposite direction…


The UK Ethiopian Christian Fellowship Church

Hey – who he think he is, takin’ ar photo?

Their UK Ethiopian Christian Fellowship Church website is interesting – rather haphazard and disorganised as a text resource, but rich in downloadable sermons and music. And a good resource for news of their community like 36 Ethiopian Christians detained in Saudi Arabia for not being quite what the authorities would like them to be.

The main point of the party girls photo is, of course, to show the grade of the hills here: they’re really quite steep as they run up and down from the course of the river, but it’s only if you stop and think about it that you really understand what’s going on. Most of time you can treat London as fairly flat, though it isn’t really – and it’s quite a surprise to find hills like this.

Crossing to the eastward side of the river we come into Clerkenwell, a long-established mediaeval parish (the name refers to an old holy well or Clerk’s Well), which from 1900 became part of the borough of Finsbury; Finsbury itself was in turn scooped up into the Borough of Islington in the 1960s. I mention this mainly because the three names get used rather interchangably (though I’m sure there are subtle class and status distinctions if you know them); and particularly because the street signs bear a variety of the names as used over the years. For our purposes, our trip essentially starts in Clerkenwell and then drifts on to what was properly the Old Finsbury.

  

Derby Court

Clerkenwell Houses

 
  

Clerkenwell General

 

Bevin Court

River Fleet

* St Mark, Clerkenwell

Sadlers Wells

New River Head

City University

  

St James, Clerkenwell

* St Peter’s Italian

  

Holy Redeemer

Mount Pleasant

  

Finsbury Health Centre



Farringdon

More to come…

  


Barbican

Museum of London

Barbican

St Giles, Cripplegate

London Wall

Smithfield Market

  


Moorgate

Florin Court

Charterhouse

London Met University

Finsbury Circus

Highwalk

  


Liverpool Street

St Botolph without Bishopsgate

Turkish Restaurant

Broadgate Exchange

Broadgate Circle

201 Bishopsgate etc

Turkish Restaurant

All Hallows on the Wall

Heron Tower

Erotic Gherkin

Tower 42

St Helen Bishopsgate

St Ethelburga

St Andrew Undershaft

Bishopsgate Institute

Christ Church Spitalfields

Spitalfields buildings, art, market

St Botolph, Aldgate

  


Aldgate East

More to come…

Princelet Street

Whitechapel Gallery

Passmore Edwards Library

Whitechapel Bell Foundry

  


Whitechapel

More to come…

Awful Station

  


Stepney Green

More to come…

  


Mile End

More to come…

  


Bow Road

More to come…

  


Bromley-by-Bow

Balfron Tower

Olympics

Bromley-by-Bow Tube Station? Yes, well it’s there somewhere in the background. But this is the busy A12 road, and it’s a bit awful. 

Down the track is Three Mills Island. Once the centre of a lot of hideous chemical industries, a lot of this has been reclaimed and made rather nice, though I still got shouted at when I mistakenly tried to cycle through a private yard. Three Mills itself is home to some genuine “mill” buildings, though these days they’re fitted out for small business. Three Mills Studios is rather famous as the home of Big Brother and various other TV shows: it also happens to be where the TV producer Peter Bazalgette has done a lot of work. He is, of course, a grandson of Sir Joseph, the master-engineer of London’s sewer system. 


 

 

There’s lots of derelict land around here, though it’s disappearing fast – the Olympic Park is just round the corner in Stratford and anywhere that’s empty at the moment is getting bought up and redeveloped at a frightening speed.

The water pumping station is the work of Sir Joseph Bazalgette, he who revolutionised London’s water and sewage systems in Victorian times in response to appalling outbreaks of cholera and to The Great Stink. Sometime I’ll give him a page of his own, but meanwhile here’s a link to the Wikipedia article on Sir Joseph Bazalgette. The pumping station has always been known as – for obvious reasons – the ‘Cathedral of Sewage’: more recently it’s been replaced by a new building, but thankfully the old one still stands. (If you have an appetite for more sewage, see the Baltimore Museum of Public Works.)


Bazalgette’s ‘Cathedral of Sewage’
 

The new ‘Cathedral of Sewage’
 

At least they’re trying

Not sure what this is meant to be, or if it’s meant to be like that


West Ham

West Ham as an area offers little more than the other areas around, though it does seem to have been substantially rebuilt more recently. Whether that makes it better I doubt, and it certainly has a fortress of a station. Presumably the size is because of the crowds from West Ham Football Club – but the general feeling does suggest one is being corralled rather than treated like a respectable citizen. On the day I was there it was also full of police and sniffer dogs, which didn’t improve the ambience much. One’s tempted to suggest…perhaps the locals all feel at home in a prison environment!

Just round the corner from the station there’s an outbreak of blokey street names. Since Jack Clow Road houses an evil-looking police base covered with antennas and warnings about fierce dogs I thought these might be officers who’d died in the course of their duties – after all, Jack Clow and Tom Nolan do sound like characters from a 1970s cop show. Sadly it turns out these guys were simply time-serving councillors who got to waste everyone’s money with streets named after them. Not for the first time, I’m left boggling at the arrogance of local politicians…



Plaistow (but pronounced ‘Plarstow’)

The urban landscape is a bit dismal round here. As a Sarf Londoner it’s no worse than some parts of Lambeth, but it seems to crowd in on you a bit…



Upton Park

Upton Park sounds a pleasant place – and indeed it’s not bad – but the main road outside the station is a bit grim. Among the ethnic-minority and working-class communities of the east end there’s a tendency to stand outside the station smoking some really rough tobaccos – my throat hasn’t felt so irritated by smokers in a long time!


Busy, busy, busy….

…but the residential streets are pleasant enough


East Ham

East Ham station is the last of the earlier generation of Tube stations, though I’m not sure the new complex awaiting us at Barking is any better.


East Ham, with an apparently meaningless street arch

Perhaps more like an old school than a station


Barking

Barking is widely known in the expression “Barking Mad”. Despite various stories about lunatic asylums hereabouts, it seems that it doesn’t doesn’t refer to Barking at all, but only to barking like a dog – but it’s certainly an evocative expression. I can’t help thinking of Charismatic Christian friends who “bark before the Lord” in worship… and yes, there are still some around who haven’t noticed it’s gone out of fashion. And there is also a real Bishop of Barking. A Barking Bishop. Could you make it up?!!

A more troubling fact about Barking is that it’s a centre of British National Party activity: indeed when I first passed through (2 days before the May 2010 General Election) there was a serious chance that they’d get their first MP here. The religious leaders of the town, including the Bishop, had just issued a condemnation of the BNP, but it wasn’t clear in the end how much effect that had. In the event, though, they didn’t get elected.

I stopped in Tesco’s here for a coffee and was rather amused by their “shallow trolleys” sign. Someone whose opinion I don’t respect once said I was a “terribly shallow person”.


Big but a bit threatening – Barking Station is part of this new complex

“you’re so shallow, Colin…”

Barking marks the eastern end of the Hammersmith & City Line: the District Line ploughs on for seven more stations to Upminster, but it goes there all on its own. Our journey is at an end – and I must say it’s been a lot longer than I ever expected. So farewell until we meet again!




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Baker Street

Baker Street marks a very significant point. Not only is it a major confluence of different lines and tracks; it’s also our point of transition to the inside of the Circle Line. The buildings are suddenly grander, and we feel like we’ve finally arrived in Central London. More than that, this is also the point where the line genuinely becomes the Jubilee Line rather than simply what the Bakerloo and Metropolitan left behind. And best of all, it’s where Sherlock Holmes lives!

Before we visit the great man let’s just note a couple of grand buildings to the north of the station. Glentworth Street is a blast of Victorian brick-and-stonework, filling both sides of a tight, tidy street. Stand in the middle and you feel you’re in a different world – collegiate, castled, communitied in some way; and certainly with access to domestic servants. A rigidity which is forbidding and yet organised at the same time.


Glentworth Street – oh so solid late Victorian

On Baker Street itself we find an elegant 1930s building which used to be the headquarters of the Abbey National Building Society, though it was probably originally put up by a predecessor institution. The Abbey National used to be a genuine old-style Building Society – basically a savings bank which lent money for mortgages on houses – but as the sector “opened up” in the 1980s the Abbey turned itself into a rapacious commercial bank which first ate up its traditional borrowers and then started on the rest of the markets. The Wikipedia article on the Abbey National is fairly scathing, noting among other offences that the Abbey extended the lives of some mortgages by 15 years without even telling the borrowers this had happened. Personally I recall the Abbey trying to sell me a very dodgy endowment mortgage which would never have come right – so there’s a certain pleasure in thinking the Abbey itself has now been gobbled up by the less-than-wonderful Santander.

In this land of mergers and takeovers the Abbey National moved out of this building at some point, and and it’s now been refurbished for the 21st century.

                    
A lighthouse for security, and a defending angel sort of person – both good images for a Building Society

The other claim this building has to fame is that it is, legally, on the site of 221 Baker Street – the home of the great detective. In reality the building covers more than one plot, so the occupants have tended to use a different number – after all, who would want to deal with shedloads of mail to a fictitious detective? But for many years mail addressed to “Sherlock Holmes” was delivered here and the Building Society maintained a small department to handle the correspondence.

Nowadays, just up the road is the Sherlock Holmes Museum, so do they get the mail instead? Well, their claims to legitimacy have taken a while to establish. For a start the museum is not at 221 but 239 Baker Street – though you won’t see that number anywhere on their door. There’s a curious question of labelling here, and Westminster City Council have apparently allowed the museum to adopt the number 221b. But whether they’ve achieved this by relabeling the plot (after all, plots don’t have to run sequentially up the road) or simply by renaming the house (like calling the house at plot 3 “Number Five”) isn’t clear.

More controversy accumulates round the museum with the knowledge that Conan Doyle’s family didn’t like the idea of a museum at all; and the Blue Plaque on the wall is definitely a fake. Blue Plaques are reserved for real people or events – and the English Heritage Blue Plaque website certainly doesn’t include this one. But everything else here is fake too, so there we go… the Wikipedia article on the Sherlock Holmes Museum makes it quite clear how we should approach this place by saying this is a “popular privately-run museum”. Best thing is simply to pay the entry fee and enjoy it.


The Sherlock Holmes Museum at 239 “221B Baker Street”

The fake blue plaque

I haven’t actually been into the museum but I guess I’ll go someday…so meanwhile let’s get back to something undoubtedly real, Baker Street station itself. The station is an oddity in that it’s a huge edifice and intersection point, yet no mainline rail services stop here. There are however a lot which pass nearby and stop at Marylebone, so there’s plenty of scope for congestion: and Baker Street Station is quite busy enough handling five Tube lines – the Bakerloo, Metropolitan, Circle, Jubilee and Hammersmith & City.


Baker Street Station

Five Tube lines run through here

Threading your way through the station is quite a challenge, partly because there are curious bits of interest and history strewn along the way. Signs like the “Platform 5” one below are presumably original, though equally they could have been recreated for a period drama.


Traditional old sign

Station Roundel, though not yet from a Jubilee Line platform!

Out on the Euston Road we’re ready to march off into Central London, but not before we’ve taken in a bronze statue of Sherlock and paused to marvel at Madame Tussaud’s. I say “marvel”, but I really mean “marvel that so many people pay so much to such a greedy international corporation which has closed down the only part of the attraction that was really worth seeing – namely the London Planetarium”. Although the Planetarium’s 45-minute shows were usually full, Tussauds have a corporate policy of piling attractions together and then making you pay a huge lot of money to see everything. In some way this means everyone has to spend only a short time on everything, and unfortunately the planetarium didn’t fit this model: the shows used to last over an hour, only 30% of the visitors ever got in to see them, and so “70% didn’t get their full money’s worth”.

How to deal with this problem? Well, obviously not by cutting the entry charge for the 70% who only wanted to see the waxworks. Instead, Tussaud’s have closed a unique educational institution and filled the dome with yet more waxworks. 100% of visitors now go round the whole lot in 10 minutes, and don’t essentially have their minds stretched at all. Just to add insult they’ve filled it with “Stars” and re-named it the Star Dome, which just seems to emphasise what a pathetic state our celebrity culture’s in.

Sadly this is typical of this company: I remember about 25 years ago visiting Wookey Hole in Dorset, paying a vastly inflated amount to get in, and then on the way out having to walk through a tedious circus museum, a boring paperworks and a whole lot of other rubbish. The company running it? Madame Tussauds, of course.

By the way, the standard adult entry charge is now a whopping £28.80 or £31.30 if you want flexibility about the time (which many will), or £43.80 if you want to give someone a ticket as a gift and leave them to pick their own day for going to London. Yes, that’s £43.80, which is suspiciously close to $70 in US money. A further option is to buy a joint ticket with the London Eye – yes, they’ve grabbed that too – and the standard adult charge is again £43.80. Welcome to rip-off London.


“Which way to the Metropolitan Line? That’s a one pipe problem”

Sadly no longer the London Planetarium

The London Planetarium was of course a worthy institution in its own right – but it’s particularly memorable for John Ebdon, its former director. Ebdon had never really tained at anything, but somewhere along the way he’d picked up lots of skills and learning, including things like “how to direct a planetarium” (which may not have been challengingly academic, if you think about it.)

Ebdon used to do a brilliant little 15-minute thinkpiece show for BBC Radio 4. It was only broadcast on the first Monday of the month at 8.45am, so it always came as a pleasant surprise – and its material was simply bizarre or silly observations about everyday life wrapped up in a philosophical blanket. His cat Perseus was often featured, and he always signed off with a self-deprecating “oh well, if you have been – thanks for listening”. You got the impression he’d just wandered in off the street and was grateful for the airtime – so it was a sad loss when he died in 1995.



Great Portland Street

More to come…

Before we head for Euston we’ll give a nod to Euston Tower, currently home to the dreaded HMRC (Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs) and the even more awful WS Atkins. Capital Radio were also based here for 24 years, their presence making it a well-known landmark. When first developed it was seen as a model of airy, progressive building – its plan is a very formal offset cross, maximising the amount of light – though Pevsner notes that like Centre Point it, and the underpass nearby, also constituted a notorious case of developers evading the loose planning processes of the time. Refurbished by Arup in the 1990s, it seems to be settling into a graceful middle age as one of the better 1960s buildings in London.


Euston Tower, outpost of Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs and WS Atkins


Euston Square

We’re now approaching the mess of trains and tunnels that is the Euston-St Pancras-Kings Cross complex. You’d think a huge coming-together of Tube, Rail and other services would be well-planned to allow easy interchange between them, but at usual you’d be wrong: in reality it’s all a grand old nightmare. These days (it’s only taken a 100 years) the mainline stations do at least have half-way decent access to the deep-level Northern, Victoria and Piccadilly Lines – and in fact there seems to be more tunnel than solid ground beneath these stations: but if for any reason you want to transfer between the mainline stations, or to get to anything which might connect them together, it’s not so good.

The Hammersmith & City claims to do the connecting job, but it’s an annoyingly long walk to anywhere and the reality is that none of the three mainline stations is really ‘on’ the Hammersmith & City Line. Euston in particular is well separate from it, which leaves Euston Square station as London’s way of saying to tourists ‘get off the big train at Euston, drag your suitcases down a block and a half of busy urban streets, and catch the Tube at this poky little nowhere.’

On the north side of Euston Road there’s a scruffy little entrance where one sign seems to have lost sight of the Hammersmith & City altogether…


A rather uninspiring little place

….and the Hammersmith & City, actually

On the south side, a recent rebuilding seems to provide proper access and a better feeling of the 21st century.


The new Euston Square Station

Just down the road is University College, which usually styles itself as UCL. London University is really a federation of colleges like Oxford and Cambridge, so the name University attached to this college is misleading – University College is but one part of the University, and is not the entirety of it. But this College was originally founded as London University, as a rival to Kings College, so you could understand them being a bit miffed when in 1836 they were formally federated together with Kings and demoted to being a mere College.

The rivalry between Kings and University College runs deep since Kings was founded as a religious institution, heavily tied to not only Christianity but Anglicanism and the Establishment: University by contrast was founded as an alternative for those who couldn’t sign up to Anglican or indeed religious ways – so it’s always been a home of non-conformists, other faiths and atheists. But the federating structure was successful in gathering up a lot more institutions like Royal Holloway, Birkbeck and Goldsmiths. As things stand today there are 9 main collegiate institutions, various central establishments like the School of Oriental and African Studies, and a host of other associated bits scattered round the UK and the rest of the world. The University of London now reckons to have about 135,000 students, which sounds like an awful lot of partying.

But the call for independence has never been far away, along with the question whether the federating structure really brought advantages or was just an extra layer of nuisance. Imperial College, once a major part of the show, opted to go independent in 2007; Kings and some of the others now award their own degrees; and the university has closed down its formal ‘Convocation’ of all former students since it didn’t seem to have any clear identity. A sign of the same tendency has been the Colleges marketting themselves almost as Universities in their own right, so now we get “Birkbeck University of London”, Royal Holloway University of London” etc. You might think the odd comma wouldn’t go amiss here, but the point is clearly to make people think each of these institutions is big enough, broad enough and of sufficient quality to stand on its own against other universities. There’s no real doubt about this – the constituent parts have always largely been self-governing and have long been treated separately in league tables and by funding bodies – though it leaves the question hanging just what the central University structure is for. I guess we’ll know it really has all fallen apart when UCL reverts back to “London University”.


University College London (UCL)

The brand new University College Hospital

Kings and UCL were both active in the study of health from their early days, and both run huge and famous hospitals. UCL’s is colocated with the main campus in St Pancras; Kings College Hospital is nowadays in Brixton, which matches Kings’ general drift south of the river. When it comes to buildings they both have the usual mix of the good, the bad and the ugly, though UCL is perhaps a little way ahead. A huge new white-and-green block is now the main base, though they still operate some services out of a horrid 1960s concrete bit. But the most interesting part of the estate is the Victorian ‘Cruciform’ building – literally a huge brick X with all sorts of little twiddly bits. It’s the sort of place you could spend days exploring, though happily nowadays it houses biomedical research rather than active hospital services.


Three ages of University College Hospital

The Victorian “Cruciform” building

Around this area there’s a huge lot more “university”. Some day it may even get a page here of its own, but for the moment let’s just stop to admire the University’s Senate House, which is another work by our old friend Charles Holden (he who did many of the most lovable stone and brick Tube stations). Though most of his work was simply at Tube Station scale, he did do two major buildings which still stand majestic and commanding, and which show he was no mean architect: the Senate House and the Broadway headquarters of London Transport. Putting them together, the similarities are obvious – though the Senate House is perhaps even more austere and doesn’t have the rude statues by Jacob Epstein that are so obvious at Broadway.

From 1931 to 1957 the Senate House was the tallest building in London, though even then it was only one part of a much bigger scheme that Holden had dreamed up for the University. Aspiring to house itself in buildings fit for the primary University of the British Empire – and therefore of the whole world – the scheme ran for a couple of city blocks and would have had at least two of these, as well as a number of lower blocks. Sadly money and opportunity ran out: but what we’re left with is fantastic in its own right.

That said, opinion is divided. Pevsner describes its style as a “strangely semi-traditional, undecided modernism” and compares it unfavourably to the Tube stations: and words like “Stalinism” and “Totalitarianism” also get used. But on the whole it’s liked. Personally I think it’s glorious, though I’m not sure about the thick white rib down the middle.

Coming back to the main drag, there’s always a treat at the Wellcome Collection. I spent many years thinking what a suilly place this must be that couldn’t even spell its own name properly, but in recent years I’ve learned it’s a fabulously wealthy medical charity which as well as its main function of medical research, does a brilliant job educating the public with exhibitions on topics like Spit, Dirt and Brains. I have no photos here, but I’d strongly recommend a visit to the Wellcome Collection Website.

Over the road is the fabulously dull Euston Station. Like its neighbours St Pancras and Kings Cross, Euston was a mighty terminus in the age of the Victorian rail barons; like the other two it suffered in the 1960s, and of the three it came off worst. The original was a rather nondescript Victorian train shed but fronted by a mighty classical arch (technically it’s a propyleum, meaning a gateway – not an arch), but this got flattened to make way for a bus station, boring modernist office blocks, and a dreadfully inadequate railway station. OK, so the arch served no useful purpose and was really just a traffic obstruction – and I dare say the train shed behind it wasn’t much good – but what a shame to have knocked it down and replaced it with this lot. The final insult is that there’d have been plenty of space to leave it standing…but the fashion of the times was against it.


Some of the old is still there…
 

…but it’s sadly compromised by all the buses
 

The original Euston Station with its grand propyleum
 

Not that unpleasant…until you consider what was there before
 

As with Centre Point I have to confess that I rather like the 60s black granite and stainless steel now it’s been cleaned up – it has a look of expensive minimalism and is one of Richard Seifert’s better contributions to London – but I’m also sympathetic to the view that the demolition of the original station was one of the worst architectural crimes of the 20th century. It led directly to the establishment of the Victorian Society as a movement to preserve our wonderful 19th century buildings… and nowadays we’re talking of a vast redevelopment of the whole area. There’s even a campaign to rebuild the Euston Arch!

Back on the south side of the road is St Pancras New Church, a grand affair but with a strange air of neglect and sadness. It would benefit from about £5 million spent on it, and probably an extra 300 in the congregation – though I suspect even then it would feel rather out of place. 

The parish used to cover a large area extending from Highgate to Oxford Circus, with its main church further north: but Central London just kept growing, and this New Church was built to accommodate them. In time this one became the main parish church and the old one fell into disuse; but as the population continued to increase the later Victorians split the parish and restored the Old Church. They did this so radically that the Old Church is now essentially a lot newer than the New one, though confusingly they did it in a sort of Norman revival ragstone style which makes it look older. The Old Church now occupies a nice patch of green at the back of St Pancras International Station, and looks rather more prosperous than the New one.


St Pancras New Church

St Pancras Old Church: actually newer, but it looks older

The design here is solidly Greek Revival from about 200 years ago: the tower is based on the Tower of the Winds, and there are even a couple of weird little extensions (in Greek terms they’re called ‘Tribunes’) based on the Erechtheum. That’s the idea, at least – but the tower seems a bit feeble and the Tribune on Euston Road looks mildly ridiculous and very dirty. Apparently they’ve tried cleaning it up, but 200 years on the Euston Road means it just won’t come any whiter – and anyway, as you hurtle past at 30 mph, what is it for? The answer in its day was that that that great red door (it’s actually bronze) led to burial vaults, where one could be buried at significant cost. The pews in the church were also available for rent – which all fed into the Victorian genius for working out how the continuing ministry of the church should be paid for. Nowadays we do the same thing by a process of guilt and hints – but I doubt that we do it anything like so effectively.

The rather tired feeling continues inside, though as the photo below shows, it’s not that bad. In many ways it’s all just like many other central London churches – a mix of history, post-war restoration and a generally cheap attempt to ‘carry on under all circumstances’ – but with the corny 1960s ceiling tiles, the tired noticeboards, the rather naff ’60s light fittings and the general ‘stripped’ feel, it all seems to point in one direction. You come away feeling it could do with either an Alpha-course revival or some classical music enthusiasts moving in.


The weird little extension with its Caryatids
 

Inside, it’s Greek Revival combined with tired 20th century

A last look at the west front

Apart from the big attractions, the Euston Road is starting to get a bit tatty by now as it approaches the despair of Kings Cross. But a couple of last gasps of delight are yet in store: the British Library and St Pancras Station.

The British Library is an utter treat: always interesting, a place where I could happily spend a large amount of money, and – well, why have just one Magna Carta when you can have four?

Like most other public institutions in London, it had a long journey to where it is now. You could say it’s not big enough, or that it’s too big; or that the site is the wrong place, or that the building’s ugly, or that the project was badly managed… on the other hand there’s a good argument that just for once we got this one about right. That may be more due to good luck than great planning, but there we are.

It’s not as big as the French Bibliotheque National – but theirs is massively over-sized, particularly for the internet age. And it doesn’t have a glorious site all on its own – but it does fill a hole in Euston rather well, and its public square is very pleasant indeed. It doesn’t match the fairytale style of St Pancras’s Station next door, but then nothing could – and it does echo the colour of the bricks and stand rather well as a respectful neighbour. And tellingly, Pevsner says it’s the only late 20th century public building of any note.

Here’s a link to the main British Library website.


The British Library, with its new public space

St Pancras floats, like a fairytale castle, behind


Kings Cross St Pancras

Our journey through the nexus isn’t quite over yet: we still have to navigate St Pancras and Kings Cross Stations. These and Euston were of course the first arrivals, and the Tube lines since then have had to squeeze in rather inelegantly between them.

In the days of Victorian business enthusiasm various railway companies built into London and developed great stations and hotels at the London ends of their lines. They made little effort to join these up – after all they were founded on competition – so the result is that even today there are about 14 mainline railway termini in London, and we rely on the Tube to connect them together. As a result, even now it’s murder catching a train from one side of Britain to the other if the route goes anywhere near London.

St Pancras claims to be the terminal for lines to the north, but this really means the northern Midlands, the North West and Glasgow. To my mind Kings Cross is the terminal for the “true” north, meaning Newcastle, the North East and Edinburgh.

St Pancras is now also the international terminal for the Eurostar train, which has meant that at last it’s an economic proposition to restore its glorious Victorian gothic hotel and station frontage. It’s now been re-furbished at vast expense and is a Marriott Renaissance hotel…and as expected, it’s a cracker. The whole building is now recognised as a masterpiece of its kind, and whatever the actual limitations of the heating system and the Victorian corridors you can’t fail to be impressed. It’s all the more shocking, then, to think that British Rail neglected it shockingly and had every intention of doing a Euston on it; and all credit to Sir John Betjeman and the Victorian Society for saving it.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ready for the Olympics
 

The Champagne Bar
 

The gorgeous Booking Office doorway
 

Sir John Betjeman surveys it all
 

This is how to arrive in a foreign city!

A wonderful detail from the roof

The restoration job is all the more astonishing because they’ve actually hollowed out the base of the station, stuck in a vast number of shops and restaurants, and made the trains come in – at original platform level – above them all. It makes the whole place a palace of amazing ideas and views; the more so because trains run regularly from here to Paris (2 hours 20) or Brussels (4 hours 15). Who would ever have thought it?

Kings Cross Station next door is a plain affair by contrast, built by Lewis Cubitt, youger brother of Thomas (who built most of the better parts of Pimlico.) When it opened, the directors of the London and North Eastern Railway Company rejoiced that the very minimum amount of money had been spent on their grand London terminus. Add to this the comparison with St Pancras next door, the awful 1970s extension to the frontage, the effects of an IRA Bomb in 1973, and the generally seedy surrounding neighbourhood, and it’s no wonder that for many year Kings Cross was roundly hated and despised. But now it’s being cleaned up, the clutter is being removed, a huge new entrance hall is being built, and there is some chance that we’ll come to appreciate it as a plain but fundamentally decent structure.


The main frontage
 

The huge new extension at the side
 

A detail of the roof – not quite St Pancras!

The basically decent look now it’s been cleaned up

Here’s a bigger shot of the area at the front of King’s Cross station, showing the last days of the horrible green-fronted extension from the 1970s. The plan is to clear all of this away and leave a nice public space with the old station standing gracefully behind it, along with huge amounts of regeneration and new housing in the surrounding area. If they also manage to deal with the prostitution, the drugs and all the other dross that currently hangs around…well, it might just be rather nice.

* Central St Martins & Degree Show

Regents Canal

Somewhere round the back of all this was the place I’d originally set out to find – namely St Pancras Old Church.

Pancras was apparently a Roman boy whose family converted to Christianity, and who himself espoused the faith so enthusiastically that the emperor Diocletian got to hear of it. The emperor demanded that Pancras recant, at least as far as offering a sacrifice to the Roman gods – and when he refused, Diocletian had him beheaded. All this happened in the year AD 304, which means his story must have spread fast given that there was a church on this site dedicated to him in AD 314 – just ten years later. Being young (he died at 14) and male, and healthy, he gets wrapped in with various soldier-saints and is nowadays prayed to for good health and employment. He must be busy at the moment.

As usual, if you want more there are the Wikipedia Article on St Pancras and the Wikipedia Article on St Pancras Old Church.

The parish here used to cover a large area extending from Highgate to Oxford Circus, with its main church here at the northern end of the paris: but at some point the population moved away towards Kentish Town, probably because the land was higher and drier.  Central London just kept growing, though, and St Pancras New Church was built down on the Euston Road to accommodate them. In time that one became the main parish church and the old church fell into disuse; but as the population continued to increase still further, the later Victorians split the parish and resurrected the Old Church.

Being Victorians, they did this so radically that the Old Church is now in some ways a lot newer than the New one, at least on the outside: though confusingly they did it in a sort of Norman revival ragstone style which makes it look older. So the Old Church now occupies a nice patch of green at the back of St Pancras International Station, and at least from the outside looks rather more prosperous than the New one.

It takes a bit of work to find the church, but yes – there is a patch of green somewhere behind St Pancras Station, and on a nice day it’s even quite airy and peaceful (and not just, as you might fear, the usual dank miserable gap between surrounding buildings that you often get in London.) That said, I did see a lad relieving himself quite publicly there – but (probably for the best) I didn’t manage to get my camera out quickly enough to capture the moment. 

The churchyard contains a number of impressive and strange sights including the very grand Burdett-Coutts monument with its very own sundial, and the “Hardy Tree”. This reflects the fact that this was once, and still is in fact, quite a nice area: it just suffered the horrible indignities of having three very busy stations with their associated vast railway yards dumped on top of it. The Hardy Tree is noteworthy because it’s surrounded with old tombstones; and it’s associated with the novelist Thomas Hardy because as a young man he worked around here as an architect, and the tombstones were piled up here during his time. Why it didn’t occur to anyone that in due course the tree’s roots would push all the tombstones around and the whole thing would become an impenetrable mass I don’t know – or perhaps it did: I certainly can’t imagine Hardy himself didn’t see it coming. And nowadays people come from far and near to see this ‘wonder’.


The Burdett-Coutts Memorial

The “Hardy Tree”

Baroness Burdett-Coutts was a generous philanthropist in her time, though the name Coutts suggests she probably made sure she had plenty left over. I was interested to come across a gravestone which recorded on its rear her generosity in sponsoring the restoration of its front – presumably something of great historical importance. So imagine the shock of discovering the front is once more completely weathered and impossible to decipher…!


Baroness Burdett-Coutts paid for the restoration of….

…oh dear…this!

Finally we come to the church itself. As I’ve already said, the outside at least is all Victorian, though it’s trying to look Norman: the inside, by contrast, has a genuinely mediaeval feel, though sadly that’s because it’s rather messy and a bit smelly. The general impression isn’t helped – no, honestly, high church friends, it really isn’t – by seeing it still full of incense as it was when I dropped by on Sunday morning.


St Pancras Old Church

Interior, with added smelly mist

Be nice to them, I thought, and to be fair one or two of them did try. A very tedious old man latched on to me and started walking me round the church, pointing out everything of any remote interest and finishing at the “6th century altar stone” set into the altar. Now history is all very well, but there is of course also a Tractarian game going on here: the Church of England bans stone altars in favour of wooden Communion Tables, but if you’re serious about the “real sacrifice” you lay a bit of stone into the wooden top: then when you cover the whole thing with a cloth, who would ever know there’s really an “altar” there? And who could possibly object when the stone is a genuine 6th century altar-stone which predates that whole Reformation business…? Well, it looked a pretty tatty old bit of stone to me.

Among those who didn’t try at all, the coffee team were clearing away and didn’t say hello even though they serve coffee in the front porch of the church and I’d walked in right past them. It was left to me to ask if I could salvage the dregs from their cafetiere, and to me to ask for a piece of their cake. And to me to proffer a rather lavish £2 for it all.

Worse was to come. I thought having paid for my refreshments I could at least use their loo – but as I came back out the vicar caught me and started on a rant about cyclists coming in and using their toilet. I should have said “I’ve paid for this, matey, in your crimplene sparkly cassock” but I was so surprised I didn’t fight back…I just scarpered, making a mental note that if I’m ever appointed as a Church Commissioner faced with shutting churches down I won’t bust a gut to keep this place open.

So…moving on quickly…the next part of my journey meant striking out east of Kings Cross and heading for Farringdon. Handled properly, this also allows for exploring London’s most famous ‘hidden river’, namely the River Fleet, which starts Hampstead, passes through Kings Cross and then follows the Farringdon Road down to Blackfriars. The river still runs, but it’s almost entirely built over – not least by the Farringdon Road itself, which is an amazing Victorian creation shoved in on top of the mediaeval city. Some day I’ll write up the whole River Fleet trip, but for the moment we’ll join it as it runs down to Farringdon.

But how do you detect the route of an underground river? It turns out there are two clues which together get you about 90% of the way there: firstly rivers naturally run at the bottoms of valleys, so you should head for the lowest part of the ground, and secondly since the river marked the boundary between two districts (here it’s Islington and Camden) look for the change of district on the street signs. Neither of these is completely reliable, because as the river got built over some adjustments were made to both the terrain and the district boundaries; and there’s the added complication that some of this is Clerkenwell, which is part of Finsbury, which is itself part of Islington – but with the help of a historic map you can generally work it out.

I set off cautiously, determined to explore and document every single place of any interest at all. This may explain why after a whole day I only really covered the ground up to one more Tube Station (Farringdon); but there we go.

The very first stop, just about 20 yards into the journey, was a small street with The Joint, which bills itself as ‘London’s New Premier Rehearsal Studios and Music Practice Rooms’. It didn’t seem very exciting on the Sunday afternoon I passed by, but there we go: my main objective was a view at the end of the street – potentially the lost river, except that it wasn’t. All I got was a view down into the trench where the Tube goes into Kings Cross, and even that involved climbing precariously on a wall to see it.


The Joint at Kings Cross

Just the next street, though, brought me back to somewhere I’d been earlier in the year: the Gagosian Gallery. The expensive area around Bond Street is generally the place for art, but in the great explosion of everything into radically unfashionable areas, the Gagosian’s main base is now a rather unfashionable warehouse down a back street near King’s Cross. And for any who don’t know – Larry Gagosian has built up an enormous international business in pushing very modern art to wealthy people with large wallets and huge walls to fill. So here he has acres of white space, good access for skipping truckloads of stuff in and out, and no-one objects to a building that’s festooned with high tech security. And the surrounding area is seriously on the ‘up’, anyway, if indeed it was ever ‘down’ to say you lived in Clerkenwell, Islington, Camden, Finsbury or the newly-redeveloped Kings Cross.

The subject of the exhibition was Damian Hurst’s spot paintings, which (to me at least) draw their thinking from three sources: (a) the study of colour, and references to paint colour charts, (b) theories on the perception of colour by the eye and the mind; and (c) Hirst’s other obsession with pharmacies and medical drugs and the chemical structures that comprise them. You may think ‘you could do this at home’, and indeed I’ve tried – but his claim, at least, that they’re based on chemical structure would leave most of us far behind. Personally I don’t see how the chemistry determines the choice of colours so precisely as to mean you end up with every spot being a slightly different colour from every other one, and all perfectly randomly placed to achieve a pleasing balance for the eye – but perhaps he’ll explain it to me some day.

I enjoyed looking at the paintings…well, of course I did; I even went round a second and a third time. But we weren’t allowed to photograph them. We were, however, allowed to photograph more general scenes, showing the people going round the exhibition – and that of course was rather more fun, particularly since it includes two types of people: on the one hand the eager, committed visitors; and on the other the detached, looming staff. Are these guys there for security? Are they art students? Are they bored out of their wits or really quite excited by it all? How much so they get paid? We never know – and they’re always, inevitably, tall, razor-thin, dressed in black, vaguely threatening and foreign-looking.


Let’s see how far I can slide my leg out while I keep my back against the wall…

The visitors, happily, latched on to this curious approach to photography – and we made a point of posing for each other so we could get ‘touristy’ photos with the paintings in. The Dutch lady in the red coat below was particularly sociable…though I don’t think red is the right colour to go with a Damian Hirst.


 

 

Here’s a link to the main Gagosian website.

There’s plenty around this area that suggests it could still ‘improve’ a long way. Busy roads, endless shops advertising phone cards for countries half-way round the world, a sense that no-one actually loves anything here… and the remnants of former and current attempts to improve it. It’s all still a bit nasty, but if you figure that in Dickens’ time and before then it was a lot worse, perhaps you can envisage it as a work in progress. When the River was basically used as a sewer for both household and industrial waste they didn’t build nice streets there with good quality housing: so although the Victorians with their passion for sorting things out ‘improved’ it radically, they inevitably left it with some way to go. The 20th century tried again, but even so there are patches where things don’t feel right.

It’s hard to know, though. Just down the road from the Gagosian is an old place, Derby Lodge. There’s a tidiness about it, but beyond that it looks like pretty grim social housing, and the one or two residents I saw looked pretty rough. Those ironwork brackets look rather contemporary with the bridges and viaducts in the Victorian road schemes further on, which suggests the plumbing may be pretty ancient. Yet a one-bedroom flat here will set you back about £300K – which presumably reflects its closeness to the stations and indeed to the City. Perhaps £300K is in fact rather cheap for this area, and this, the bottom of the market, gets let out to ‘social support’ cases… If so, it seems a heck of a lot of money, though we’ll see that just round the corner, you’d have a job getting anything for under £1M.


The rather doubtful Derby Lodge

Back on the main road there are the usual attempts at cheery infill, trying to suggest it’s a ‘happening’ area. The building on the left is perfectly standard round here – the usual multi-level brick construction with tidy sensible windows has served ‘working London’ well for the last 300 years – but someone in the early 2000s thought it clever to add a concrete box and clad it with this appalling aluminium. It claims to be a ‘business generation centre’ , but it fact the quality of the skin here is so terrible it makes you doubt the whole project. The front isn’t even properly flat, the corners are badly made, and that sticky-out bit on the right merely masks an entry-way. Horrible. 

The church on the right is at least an honest building, though it doesn’t quite look a natural home for the UK Ethiopian Christian Fellowship Church. They looked a lively lot, though it seemed a bit cheeky to include them in the photo so I deliberately pointed my camera a bit skywards. Happily, though, some of their community were making a lot of noise in the street opposite, so here’s a shot you don’t see every day. Just look at those magnificent, er, shoes…