Albert Bridge: “A temporary gangway flung across the river”

One of my all time great London moments was a late summer evening about 30 years ago when I was walking home from a meeting in Chelsea. Although Albert Bridge was closed to traffic, and although pedestrians could cross I was the only person on it. At the middle I paused to look downriver and at that very moment all the 4,000 lights that illuminate the bridge came on. Magical; it felt like this was being done just for me.

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The Blue Bridge in St James’s Park

It’s the platform for a trillion photos – to the west is Buckingham Palace, framed by trees, and look east to see Horseguards, the London Eye and the chateau-style roofline of Whitehall Court. Try to cross on a day when there is the Changing of the Guards and it seems like half of humanity is being funnelled through its narrow footway.

This is the ‘Blue Bridge’ that spans the lake in St James’s Park, a blandly functional crossing erected in 1957, made from two concrete beams, with railings painted a sky blue (hence, of course, the name). 

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Prince Albert’s Mega-kitsch Memorial

Of course the damn thing is utterly absurd.

Every criticism of high victoriana – over-sentimental, over-decorated, over-elaborate to the point of fussy, over size – applies in spades. If it were half the size it would be laughable. And yet … it’s magnificent; utterly absurd, but magnificent.

This is the Albert Memorial, that sits in Hyde Park like a gothic Thunderbird 3 about to launch.

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St George’s Bloomsbury: the triumph of “the Devil’s Architect”

Find your way to the High Holborn entrance to the roof terrace of the new ‘Post Building’ (the former Royal Mail West Central District Office), navigate the security, ascend the lift to the ninth floor and you will be rewarded with a view of the rooftops of the West End.

Over to the east is St Paul’s and the City, south you can make out Parliament and the Eye, but it’s the sights north and close by that really impress.

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St Mary’s Isn’t in the Way

One of the ways in which the city has been vastly improved over the past few years has been the claiming back of roadways into public (i.e. pedestrian) space.

Perhaps the first of these was Ken Livingstone’s reclamation of the road between Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery, turning what had been a traffic island (albeit an historic traffic island) visited only by tourists and pigeons (and a thousand drunk londoners on New Year’s Eve) into an actual public space. It became somewhere one walks across rather than round, and a true centre to London, one where events from opera screenings to Diwali festivals attract large crowds.

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Duck Island Cottage – Westminster’s Swiss Chalet

It’s somehow absolutely typical of london that some of the closest neighbours to George Gilbert Scott’s huge Italianate Foreign Office building is a pair of one-storey wooden swiss-style chalets – and I’d venture that these two star in more photos than their much grander neighbour.

This is the Birdkeeper’s – or Duck Island – Cottage, built in 1841 at the best of the Ornithological Society of London as a residence for a St James’s Park birdkeeper, with a clubroom for the Society making up the pair. The cottage is on the aforementioned Duck Island and it is linked to the clubroom by a covered bridge or loggia, although the channel that separated the ‘island’ from the rest of the park was filled in in the 1880s. The architect was John Burges Watson, who is not well-known. He designed St Mary’s church in Staines, St Mary Magdalene, South Holmwood, and won the competition for the new Kingston Bridge, although his plan was not used. 

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Whitehall Court – London on the Loire

Look towards the Eye from St James’s Park (or vice versa), or look upriver from the Golden Jubilee Bridge and there appears to be a huge French chateau on the Westminster side, a long building with mansard roofs puncturing the skyline. (As the National Heritage listing puts it, “a vast elaborate pile with exuberant French Renaissance, Chateaux de la Loire, inspired details”.)

This is Whitehall Court. The ‘downriver’ end is the National Liberal Club, the centre section the Royal Horseguards hotel*, and on the upriver end, opposite the Ministry of Defence, some ground floor offices and a collection of residences above.

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The York House Watergate and the 1st Duke of Buckingham

When Joseph Bazalgette created his marvellous (and still used) sewer system the 1860s, he pushed back the banks of the Thames and buried his main ‘Low Level’ pipes in the reclaimed land. This is now The Embankment, ground that throughout history was subject to the twice-daily wash of the tides, now parks, roads and the riverside pavement. This reclamation of land from the river led to a couple of foreshore constructions to be landlocked. 

Exhibit 1 is the great archway entrance to Somerset House. Now a glass fronted doorway facing the road and the river it was, until Bazalgette, an open arch, through which boats could be rowed to deposit their occupants into the heart of the complex.

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Queen Anne’s Gate: Higgledy-Piggledy in SW1

Apparently the expression “higgledy-piggledy” is not much known in the US; my use of the phrase to an American tour group as we passed a ramshackle old house was greeted with incomprehension.

But higgledy-piggledy is the perfect description of the house at 44 Queen Anne’s Gate in Westminster, a stone’s throw from St James’s Park underground station; if you look at the photos illustrating this post you’d be hard-pressed to find a straight line that remains in the entire building.

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Stockwell’s concrete cathedral for buses

stockwell bus garage interior

Fall asleep on a Go-Ahead bus and you might just be lucky enough to wake up in the depot – the soaring, concrete cathedral that is Stockwell Bus Garage. (It’s 100m or so from Stockwell station.)

Opened in 1952, at the time it had Europe’s largest unsupported roof span, the vast space inside (6,800 sq metres, or roughly ten football pitches) able to house 200 buses.

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