Category Archives: london

Billingsgate

img_3945It’s five a.m. – 5 o’clock in the morning – in a misty Canary Wharf. You can’t see the top of 1 Canada Square and there are few lights on in the HSBC HQ, but where I am is buzzing with workers and shoppers.

I’m at Billingsgate Fish Market, one of London’s historic wholesale produce markets, the places – like Smithfield, Covent Garden, Spitalfields – that used to feed London.

And, despite the supermarkets and the chain restaurants, they still do to a certain extent. Around Billingsgate you’ll see buyers for fishmongers and restaurants, notebooks in hand, buying boxes of fish that are then loaded onto big steel trolleys by the white-clothed porters and taken out to the buyers’ vans. (“Your legs. Your legs” is the warning shout of the porters as they hurtle down the aisles.) Continue reading

The Development Plan for Greater London

lonsoc-london-plan-e1406632951632Before Abercrombie and Forshaw, with their 1943 and 1944 plans for modernising London , with new ring roads, ‘zoned’ areas and satellite new towns, there was the London Society‘s Development Plan.

Put together between 1914 and 1918 (the coincidence that both plans were the product of wartime is interesting), the Society’s plan grew out of a widespread feeling in the early part of the 20th Century that London had grown too much, too rapidly and without any overall supervision. At the RIBA Town Planning Conference in 1910, William Riley, architect of the London County Council, said that London was “one of the most costly examples of the evils resulting from the lack of proper [planning]”.

From the 1910 conference came the London Society,  its founder members including Riley, Sir Aston Webb (architect of the front of the V+A and the processional route along the Mall), Raymond Unwin (the architect-planner of Hampstead Garden Suburb and Letchworth Garden City) and a wide array of other architects and planners (including the splendidly named Arthur Beresford Pite)., politicians, newspaper moguls and businessmen.

Identifying transport infrastructure as key to the capital (plus ca change) the Society proposed that one body should be responsible for developing the arterial roads into and across the city, and its 1918 plan proposed a whole new network of main roads, by passes, the north and south circular and a new orbital road way that prefigures the M25 by several decades.

Allied to this were proposals for “new parks, parkways and waterside reservations”, connected by belts of green parkways, and the nationalisation of the railways to better control and coordinate the passenger and goods traffic coming into and through London.

The Plan was incredibly influential. In practical terms its concept of the ‘green belt’ was accepted and many of the roads it suggested were built, but more broadly, its idea that the growth of cities could be planned and managed with a view to making these developments better places to live and to work was widely embraced. Further plans and activity followed, and it’s fair to say that this work formed the foundation of Abercrombie’s vision.

You can buy a copy of the original plan, along with descriptive notes and context of the London plans at the London Society website.

The Rock ‘n’ Roll Soho Walk

The map below (click the top right corner of it to get full screen) is the plan I’m building up of central London sites associated with (predominantly) ’60s and ’70s rock and pop.

So we have the site of the Beatles’ last live performance (and possibly their first London gig), the flat where Mama Cass Elliot and Keith Moon both died, the pub where Brian Jones auditioned Mick Jagger and Keith Richards for his new band, the club where the Sex Pistols, the Clash, Jimi Hendrix and The Who played, and the offices where Elton John worked.

The blue line is my ‘rock n roll Soho’ walk, taking in many of the places mentioned above, as well as the street where Bowie was photographed for the Ziggy Stardust album, the studios where Bohemian Rhapsody was recorded, and the shop where Eric Clapton (reputedly) bought his first guitar.

If you want to come on this walk one Sunday, click here to put your email address into my newsletter list and I’ll send you the dates as they are scheduled.

Bye bye bonfire night

Over 400 years of tradition is coming to an end in London:- the public celebration of Guy Fawkes or Bonfire Night.

Of course there are still some fireworks shows to go to, but these are now (with one or two exceptions) tightly-controlled, ticket-only, paid events. And they are displays of fireworks, disassociated from the ‘gunpowder, treason and plot’ of the rhyme; Guy-less, ahistorical.

Ten years ago one could – and I did – watch the free fireworks on Clapham Common and see in the distance the rockets from Lambeth’s other free shows in Brockwell Park and Tooting Bec. After cutting back these shows from three to one, this year Lambeth have axed the fireworks completely. In Wandsworth the free fireworks across the borough were condensed into the expensive Battersea Park event years ago, and it’s a similar story in Wimbledon and across the rest of the capital. Continue reading

The Monument

dsc_0100Climb the 311 stairs today to the top of the Monument and the view lays out the 21st century City. To the north the Walkie Talkie seems close enough to touch, and behind that are the Cheesegrater, the Gherkin, Heron Tower and the other towers of skyscraper alley.

To the south the view is dominated by the Shard, but the Elephant and Castle developments are now starting to block that horizon; the east has the packed legoland towers of Canary Wharf.

The west gives some relief with a great view of St Paul’s and down the river to Westminster, but look down into the City and one can see the current building boom with cranes and construction sites all around. Continue reading

London in Miniature

IMG_0657They don’t make as big a deal of it as they should, but at the Building Centre in Store Street (off Tottenham Court Road, and just round the corner from the British Museum) there is the most fantastic architectural model of London.

You can see the capital stretch out in front of you, from Stratford in the east right across to Old Oak Common, and from Primrose Hill in the north down to Nine Elms.

There are the clusters of skyscrapers in the City and Canary Wharf, the new developments at Battersea and Paddington. You can take in the ordered streets and quiet squares; notice the Eye, the Orbit, the Post Office (Telecom) Tower and the way the river weaves along, and appreciate the extraordinary amount of green space with which London is blessed. Continue reading

Rock ‘n’ Roll London

bm001 - 1 (2)One of the shocks of middle age is realising just how old some of the music is that one listens to. Like all right-thinking people, one of my favourite tracks is the Clash’s ‘White Man in Hammersmith Palais‘ – which is now nearly 40 years old. It’s chastening to think that track is as distant from the present as punk was from Ambrose and his Orchestra and Al Bowlly.

The other shock is that the places associated with this music have become sites for visitors. In just the same way as one would go and see parts of the city where Shakespeare or Dickens lived and worked, so one can now go and pay one’s respects to the venues where the Beatles, or the Rolling Stones or David Bowie once performed. Continue reading

April photos

Some snaps from the phone from walking around this month. Click on any image to see the whole galley

Book review: Up in Smoke by Peter Watts

IMG_2816I have a terrible confession to make, one that will see me shunned by London society, if not drummed out of the city altogether: I don’t actually like Battersea power station.

Giles Gilbert Scott’s brooding brick behemoth by Chelsea Bridge has always been too squat, too square for my tastes. His Bankside power station (now the home of the Tate Modern) is wonderfully proportioned, its single chimney in tasteful contrast to the bloated glass towers on the other side of the river.

And if it were not for its chimneys, would anyone give a stuff about Battersea? Their elegant flutes are (for me) the sole redeeming feature of Scott’s earlier building. Continue reading

Hilda Hewlett – Pioneer Aviator

CguYvg9XEAEjDC9Men outnumber women on London’s Blue Plaques by over seven to one, so it was good to stumble across this in Vardens Road, just off St John’s Hill.

It was unveiled in September 2015 to commemorate the first woman to gain a pilot’s licence (in 1911, when she was 47) and – in association with French engineer Gustav Blondeau – the manufacturer of numerous aeroplanes.

Continue reading