Number One London

You’re likely to have been past this place several hundred times, because Apsley House is the big, honey-coloured building on the north side of Hyde Park Corner, facing into the traffic with its back to the park.

Formerly the home of the Duke of Wellington, victor over Napoleon in Spain, Portugal and at Waterloo, Prime Minister under George IV and William IV, the house is still occupied by the current, 9th, Duke.

That particular corner of the Park is awash with Wellington monuments (it was once called Wellington Place). The Wellington Arch (through which the Household Cavalry ride each morning, and under which the cycle path runs) is in the centre of the glorified traffic island, and close by, facing the house, is a mounted statue (by Joseph Boehm) of the Duke himself, flanked by a grenadier, a Scottish highlander, an Irish Dragoon and a Welsh Guard. And in the Park, just behind the house is the actual ‘Wellington Monument’, a statue of Achilles by sculptor Richard Westmacott, cast in bronze from cannons capture at Waterloo and erected in 1822. Achilles was the subject of some controversy when it was unveiled as it is a nude (except for a fig leaf), and so felt by some to be an outrage to public decency.

The house was bought by the Duke (from his own brother, who needed the cash) with some of the £700,000 given to him by the state after the final defeat of Napoleon. That’s an amount of money worth about £90 million in today’s prices. The original house was by Robert Adam and was considerably smaller; Wellington commissioned Benjamin Dean Wyatt to extend and radically remodel the place – and had the classic client/architect relationship, in that Wellington fell our with Wyatt about time and cost overruns to the extent that he refused to speak to him.

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“One of the sights of London”

Miss the Tower of London, if you have to, but don’t miss this” wrote Ian Nairn in his 1966 guide, Nairn’s London. A Nash terrace? A Wren church? No – the inside of Buzz Bingo in Tooting.

Of course, Nairn din’t know it as a bingo hall, but as the Granada cinema, and it dates from 1931, a sumptuous expression of Art Deco design (interiors by the Russian-born director and designer Theodore Komisarjevsky) that now has Grade I listed status.

It was a monster auditorium that could seat 3,000 patrons, the owner of the Granada chain, Sidney Bernstein, reckoning that the transport connections of Tooting Broadway’s multiple bus routes, underground station and the nearby overground would pull in customers from across south west London and beyond (at that time the border of the county of London and Surrey was close by, and Surrey did not permit cinemas to be open on Sundays, while London did).

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The Bomb Damage maps

During the war the London County Council surveyors chronicled the devastation caused by enemy bombing on the capital. Hand colouring street level OS maps, they plotted the buildings damaged; generally speaking, the darker the colour, the more the devastation – black was “total destruction”, purple “damaged beyond repair”, right through to yellow “blast damage: minor in nature”.

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Michael Fagan and Buckingham Palace

buckingham palace with lifeguards

There might be red-coated soldiers from the elite Guards regiments standing sentry around it (not to mention large numbers of coppers with Big Guns), but Buckingham Palace isn’t quite as secure as you might think.

Queen Victoria suffered from the attentions of ‘The Boy Jones‘, who broke in on numerous occasions (stealing some of Victoria’s underwear at one point – insert “not amused” gag here). In 1981 three German backpackers, mistaking the palace gardens for Hyde Park, scrambled over the back wall of the gardens and camped out for the night.

But the most significant intrusion of recent times was that of Michael Fagan a 31 year old unemployed painter and decorator, who, in 1982, not only got into the main part of the Palace at least twice, but also managed to find the Queen’s bedroom and woke her up to ask for cigarettes.

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“Commit no nuisance”

commit no nuisance sign on wall

As you wander around London you might see, either on an old sign, or painted up on a wall, the message “commit no nuisance”.  There’s an example below from the sign on the south side of Waterloo Bridge – “2: COMMITTING NUISANCE – no person shall commit any nuisance on any bridge…”

commit no nuisance

Charming, yes? A Victorian injunction to always behave oneself in a pleasant and decorous manner? (The signs and notices are always a good 100 years old.)

Not quite.

What they’re really saying is – “Men, don’t p*** against the wall”

In the days before public toilets (indeed, before proper plumbing in most pubs and houses), the more respectable citizens were frequently up in arms about the ‘lower orders’ relieving themselves in public. You’ll find more about this – and more physical deterrents used to prevent al fresco micturation – in Lee Jackson’s excellent book, Dirty Old London.

Billingsgate – the early morning market

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It’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.)

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The Development Plan for Greater London

london society development plan

Before 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]”.

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Bye bye bonfire night

bonfire

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.

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Wren’s Monument to the 1666 Great Fire

The Monument and the Shard

Climb the 311 stairs today to the top of the Monument and the the 21st century City spreads out around you. 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.

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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 “London in Miniature”