Monday, July 31, 2006
Sign here: Bow Road
You can learn so much about an area's history just by looking at its street signs. When were they erected, and who or what were they named after? So I've walked the full length of my local street, Bow Road (all nearly-one mile of it), and photographed an incredibly wide variety of street signs at various junctions along the way [album here]. And what a fascinating window into the past these signs provide as they evolve from old to new. As follows...
Converse to what you might expect, there's only one proper 'Bow Road' street sign along Bow Road. Here it is, just outside St Clement's Hospital, at the point where my home street morphs into the Mile End Road. This is an unloved sign, hidden on a wall beside a phone box behind a bus shelter [photo], which may just be why it's managed to survive for so long. And look, some humorous south-of-the-river wit with a black marker pen has tried adding an 'S' to the postcode, turning Bow into Blackheath. No thanks. [photo]
This Bow Road sign, by contrast, looks rather more artificial. It's stuck to the front of the local undertakers and was probably knocked together by an old employee, I'd guess in the 1950s or 60s. Bow Road is almost a millennium older. It's been the main thoroughfare from Essex to London ever since Queen Matilda lost her horses in a nearby ford and ordered the construction of a bow-shaped bridge over the Lea. Honest. [photo]
Here's a much older street sign, probably the oldest along the entire road. It's also stuck to the undertakers' wall, but this time high aloft a side alley above where the local fire station once stood. The alley's recently been fenced off and gated as part of a modern apartment development, and I suspect that's the only reason why this charming metal sign still exists. [photo]
This sign's not quite so ancient but it's definitely older than I am. It predates the reorganisation of London's boroughs in 1965, back when round here was all Poplar and not Tower Hamlets. The sign's showing signs of rust and decay now, having seen much better days, but it has a character more modern street signs sorely lack. [photo]
Here's another, rather less ornate, sign from the days of the London borough of Poplar. I suspect that the lettering at the top once used to be red, but that decades of weathering have taken their toll. Note too that, whereas earlier postcodes boasted full stops after both the E and the 3, these are now restricted to following the initial letter E only. [photo]
We're post-1965 now, with a sign on which the name of the new borough is almost more prominent than the name of the street. You probably can't see very clearly but somebody's scratched the face of a rather sad-looking bloke in the top right-hand corner [photo]. But at least this rather grim sign is doing better than its counterpart on the opposite side of the street which has been completely removed from its posts by thoughtless vandals. [photo]
This is a dreadfully uninspired street name, plonked on a featureless wall down one of the least attractive streets in the whole of Bow. The council apartments here look like a stack of unfinished piled-up concrete blocks - which makes me suspect that the architect never lived in one himself. The street sign design matches the tedium of the area to perfection. [photo]
One of the innovations introduced by Tower Hamlets councillors in the 1980s was the creation of several local 'neighbourhoods'. Bow Road marked the dividing line between two of these - Bow neighbourhood to the north and Poplar neighbourhood to the south. The two street signs pictured here, snapped on opposite sides of the road, reflect their neighbourhood location with a coloured logo. Personally I think Bow's navy blue [photo] looks rather more impressive than Poplar's weak green [photo], but you may disagree. The Coborn Road sign also displays one of the curses of modern street furniture - the advertising sticker. Who knows what 'mystic' event this was promoting, but it's probably now years out of date. Note too that, as we near the present day, street signs are getting wider and thinner, and that postcodes are becoming full-stop free. [photo]
The best laid schemes of council administrators don't always go to plan, and here some rampant ivy down the wall of a gentrified terrace has obscured most of this street name from view. Sadly this is Alfred Street and not Albert Square - you have to head across the Lea to Stratford to find a genuine one of those. [photo]
Over the last couple of years Tower Hamlets council have started wiping away most of the old street signs across the borough and replacing them with basic, white signs such as this. They're very clear and simple, and have probably been designed to comply with some all-encompassing legislation on accessibility for partially sighted citizens. But they're not exactly historically sensitive examples of modern design, are they? The only thing that's still interesting about this particular street sign today is the baffling name of the street. [photo]
And finally, here's a street sign designed not by the council but by a bunch of artists. This one appears high up on the wall of the Bow Arts Trust, above an alleyway which previously didn't have a name but does now. It's shameless, I tell you, and proof positive that street signs continue to evolve even into the 21st century. [photo]
I hope you've found my journey through the history of Bow Road street signs fascinating. If you have, maybe you could try something similar for the street where you live. Who knows what you might find!
Sunday, July 23, 2006
Cloudburst over Merton
The morning sunshine has brought a crowd of eager shoppers to Merton Abbey Mills. That and the alluring combination of craft stalls, arty shops and mildly ethnic foodstuffs laid out across the historic setting of Liberty's former silk-printing works. But the sun is long gone, the clouds have opened and the courtyard is suddenly empty. Quick, move those second-hand books undercover and drape the homemade birthday cards in plastic. A tropical downpour beats down on drooping awnings, beneath which damp shoppers anxiously wait. They stare hesitantly at the wares spread across whichever stall they've taken refuge at, aware that the storm may continue for some time. There's only so long you can stare at embroidered boots, or ribbon-tied satin cushions, before stepping back out into the rainstorm starts to look appealing.
On the far side of the courtyard a solitary lady in a pink blouse sits patiently behind a trestle table laden with jams, pickles and curry sauces. Water bounces off the green canvas above her head as she stares resignedly forward, chin in hand. Each raindrop might as well be a laser beam given the impenetrable exclusion zone now established in front of her stall. Her weekend business plan is in tatters, at least temporarily. Somewhere up the road a bride's big day is being ruined.
Beneath the central clocktower a motley crew of local musicians attempts to entertain the crowd with a succession of tame guitar songs. The first distant rumble of thunder suddenly halts this free concert, leaving stranded shoppers alone with their thoughts. Time passes. After fifteen long minutes one guitarist risks electrocution by plugging himself back into the amplifier and treats his trapped audience to a cheery rendition of U2's One. Patrons of the Commonwealth Café, safely tucked away beneath orange striped awnings, look up from their Cottage Pie and Chips and show their appreciation with warm applause. Not so the fearsome manageress who strides out into the deluge in her bulging blue apron and demands that the volume be turned down. "That'll be our last song then, thanks for listening." Somehow the atmosphere is dampened further.
A grinning child runs out to stand in the torrent of water now pouring from the corner of the clocktower roof, drenching his already-soaked hair in this impromptu waterfall. A well-protected biker and his girlfriend pass the time by flicking through a rail of slightly-too-lively clothes. A bottle-blond mother dashes out across the courtyard towards the safety of the Wheelhouse pottery, just for a change of scene. Maybe the monsoon is easing just a little, enough to brave stepping out into the open again. Pink blouse lady at last has an audience, however tiny, to sell her chutney to. No heavy shower is going to stop these South Londoners from shopping, not for long anyway.
Merton Abbey Mills
location (Wimbledon-ish, beside the Wandle, nr Colliers Wood tube)
William Morris & Liberty woz ere
Saturday, July 22, 2006
Weekend tube closures
It used to be easy taking the tube at the weekend. You turned up at your local station, caught a train, changed where necessary and duly arrived at the other end. Not any more. London Underground insist on shutting down large chunks of the tube network every weekend 'due to planned engineering works', and every weekend it's a different selection of track. What may look like a simple journey across town can become a nightmare diversionary trek via rail replacement bus services once various line segments have been erased from service.
It's particularly bad this weekend, with track replacement work affecting eight different lines and sufficient alternative travel arrangements to fill a 16-page TfL leaflet. The Circle, Metropolitan and Hammersmith and City lines are closing down yet again between Edgware Road and Liverpool Street, and the good people of Finchley, Barnet and Wanstead have been severed from the network. Tomorrow it gets even worse with additional closures on the Bakerloo and Jubilee lines, as well as Arsenal station going offline for a fortnight. I know that these engineering works have to take place sometime, and that the tube network should be slightly better once they're completed, but do we really need to endure quite so many simultaneous shutdowns?
To assist forward-looking Londoners, the tube website now kindly lists all the planned network closures for the next six months (all 104 of them). It's a rather scary list, so I've thoughtfully summarised it for you in this easy-to-swallow table of weekend tube shutdowns. Every coloured blob indicates a planned weekend closure along part (or all) of a particular line. Now you can arrange to be elsewhere as required (or maybe stick to travelling on the East London line, just to be on the safe side).
(© dg 2006)
July August September October November 22 29 5 12 19 26 2 9 16 23 30 7 14 21 28 4 11 18 25 Bakerloo Central Circle District East London Ham & City Jubilee Metropolitan Northern Piccadilly Victoria W & City
Wednesday, July 19, 2006
Central London, Wednesday 2:30pm
It is, quite literally, the height of summer.
Nobody is attempting to fry an egg on the pavement, but this would be the afternoon to try. The queue for the Oasis swimming pool stretches out of the front door, down the steps and round the corner into a sidestreet. Potential punters bathe not in refreshing chlorine but in sunlight and sweat. It's Dress Down Wednesday, although for many this means only a slightly loosened tie rather than a t-shirt and shorts. Freckles, tattoos and cellulite are willingly exposed for further charring. An unexpectedly refreshing breeze rustles the trees down Shaftesbury Avenue. In the Soho Fire Station a fiery red engine stands by with all doors thrown open wide. A tired mother saunters along beneath a yellow parasol, trailing two toddlers left exposed to the sun's direct glare.
In Piccadilly Circus a large placard points potential punters towards "½ PRICE TANNING". Business is not brisk. Tourists flop down in the shadow of Eros, occasionally dipping body parts into the cooling fountain. A double decker number 19 sauna trundles past. It's hot as hell at the foot of Regent Street, and Sinner Winner Man is here to save your flaming soul. He stands bare-chested on the traffic island, megaphone in hand, beckoning passers-by to Jesus. Nobody stops for conversation or conversion, but few have the energy to speed past. A bewildered old lady emerges up the stairs from the sweltering underworld, dressed in cottage-style floppy hat and long grey socks. She gently perspires, while London sweats.
Tuesday, July 18, 2006
DISPATCHES FROM THE E3 URBAN FRONTLINE.
Everybody's heading for the local convenience store on Bow Road.
There's a big Tesco ten minutes down the road, but it's hot and nobody can be bothered to walk that far. It's worth paying over the odds for basic foodstuffs just to avoid hiking down the arterial road and sweating like a pig.
Somebody's tied a mangy dog to the handrail on the shallow concrete ramp outside the front door. A couple of schoolkids hang around waiting for their mate to emerge with a pocketful of sweets, maybe nicked while nobody was looking, maybe not. Bow's local beggarwoman accosts every passer-by for the small change they will never offer.
The door opens with a blaring electronic fanfare. Not far inside is the rack of lottery playslips - could this be your ticket out of here? In the first aisle you'll find several varieties of plastic bread, just beyond the mostly full-fat milk. Don't expect any of these to last long beyond their sell-by date - you'll be back soon enough to stock up again. Deeper inside the shop are the not-quite ripe bananas, the over-priced packets of cereal and the grainy photocopier. Many of the products never change, but it's not quite the old Co-Op it used to be.
Security cameras train their eye along the shelves, with random aisles flashing up on the big screen above the tills in glorious black and white. There's a Bow Quarter resident flicking through the ready meals, and there's a Bromley-by-Bow mother hunting down the cheapest rice. But many customers need never venture down into the farthest recesses of the shop. Everything they require is stocked up front, just behind the counter.
"60 Benson and Hedges"
"Bottle of Johnny Walker"
"12-pack of weak own-brand lager"
"Litre of cheap generic alcoholic throat-burner"
A beery tracksuited lout leans across the counter and harangues the shopkeeper, eyeing up his turban with poorly-concealed disgust. He repeats the same ill-judged racist insult over and over, his lager-soaked mind seemingly incapable of independent thought. Yes, prices in here are steep, but white pays no more than any other colour of skin. The Costcutter family edge closer for protection, dignified in their silence. Eventually their verbal assailant departs, confident of moral victory, but he'll be back again tomorrow for another bottle or three.
"Next please, who's next?"
Sunday, July 16, 2006
I SPY LONDON
the definitive DG guide to London's sights-worth-seeing
Part 10: Theatre Museum
Location: Russell Street, Covent Garden, WC2E 7PR [map]
Open: 10am - 6pm (closed Sunday and Monday)
5-word summary: a staged history of greasepaint
Time to set aside: an hour or two
It's right next to Covent Garden Market so I must have walked past the Theatre Museum on scores, possibly hundreds, of occasions. But I'd never previously been inside, not until I finally spotted the key phrase "free admission" on a poster outside. And it really was free - the lady on the admission desk didn't blink as I walked straight past her into the semi-darkness. The audience walking around inside seemed pitifully small for a weekend matinee performance but hey, the show must go on.
The ground floor tells the story of Theatreland and the West End. Not much of the story, admittedly, but a hint at the local transformation from rows of slums to palaces of popular entertainment. There are historic prints, plans, posters and props, as well as a big screen at the rear showing highlights from glitzy long-running musicals. There's even an exhibit of theatre seating, in case you fancy a sit down. The rows used to be only 28 inches apart, which is even more squashed than a modern economy flight, but patrons were 4 inches shorter back then so maybe nobody got DVT and sued. One of Camelot's original National Lottery machines is on display, representing the millions of pounds gamblers have pumped into modernising West End theatres over the last decade. A bit rich, then, that the Heritage Lottery Fund recently placed the future of the museum under serious threat by turning down two bids for a development grant.
There's more to this museum than first meets the eye. A long twisty ramp leads down into the main galleries in the basement. In one room an optimistic amount of seating has been set out for watching selected excerpts from the National Video Archive of Performance (which is probably a collection of Sir John Gielgud's best bits). A maze of gloomy corridors tells the story of British performing arts and some of its more famous players (like, for example, more than everything you ever wanted to know about the Redgrave family). The presentation isn't especially dramatic, more a load of wall-to-floor display cases with tons of information to read. Younger visitors will no doubt be more interested in the costume and theatrical make-up demonstrations, so families should time their visit carefully. But next time you're passing (and one day you will be) why not pop in? After all it's a heck of a lot cheaper than paying through the nose to see the Lion King (and, dare I say it, rather more interesting).
by tube: Covent Garden by bus: RV1
Wednesday, July 12, 2006
Taking Time Out
When I started blogging four years ago I didn't write much about London. Not as much as I do now, anyway. I didn't think people would be particularly interested in hearing all about the places I'd visited in the capital, because that wasn't what blogging was about. Blogging was about what I'd done and what I thought and what links I'd spotted. And then one day, on the throw of a dice, I ended up going to Putney to watch the Boat Race merely so that I could write about the experience when I got home. Ever since that day my blog's evolved into a bit of a London travelog, on and off, right up to my pointless random visit to the City last weekend. Because I find it interesting. Because I get to go to places I'd never otherwise have seen. And because blogging can be about whatever I want it to be. If I have nothing better to do at the weekend than to visit places and then write about them, then so be it.
Anyway, it seems that some people do like reading what I write about London. Which is nice. And this morning a few hundred thousand more people are reading my stuff than usual. Ulp. Londoners flicking through this week's edition of Time Out magazine are about to find 800 words that I wrote, in print, in black and white, on page 12. Ulp. They're in the Big Smoke section, up front before all the listings start, where you'll usually find an eclectic mix of facts, history and observations. My article's all about the grimy underworld of the Woolwich Foot Tunnel, and it's appearing under the heading of "London journeys". The magazine's even used one of my photographs to cover a large proportion of the page, a fact which would amaze anybody who's ever seen my extremely amateur low-res digital camera.
The tunnel article has been written especially for Time Out, so you won't be reading it here, sorry. If you're very lucky then they might stick it up on their revamped website, somewhere here. If not then you're going to have to buy (or scrounge) a copy of the magazine, or wait until next week and go grubbing through the capital's recycling bins instead. My particular apologies to all those of you living outside London because your local newsagent won't be stocking Time Out (unless they're particularly stupid). You could always spend £2.35 to read the entire magazine online, although I'm not sure why anyone in Stornoway would want to know what's on at the Peckham Multiplex, or why readers in America would care that there's a community festival at Spitalfields City Farm this Sunday. But it might be worth forking out because Time Out's a good read these days (and not just because I'm in it).
Don't worry, I'm not planning on writing any less on my blog. Indeed yesterday's post about the Barbican was longer than my Time Out piece, and you got that for free. And hey, even if I can't bring you the article, I can at least show you the strapline:"London journeys: In the first of our new series of alternative routes round the capital, London blogger diamond geezer braves the tiled terror of the Woolwich Foot Tunnel"Oh boy, did they say 'series'?
I'd better get busy researching and writing a second article, I guess...
Sunday, July 09, 2006
Random 'borough' (10): City of London
The City of London isn't a true London borough, it's a corporation. That's because it dates back to the 12th century and not the London Government Act of 1963. But I'm ignoring this rather inconvenient fact.
The City of London is the tiniest administrative district in the entire country (it's not called the Square Mile for nothing), with a resident population even smaller than London, Ohio.
The City of London closes at the weekend. All the suited and booted City types stay at home, most of the buildings close and all the shops shut. And I visited on a Saturday.
I've been to the City of London before, and written about it, loads of times. I've done the "Oranges and Lemons" churches, I've made a trip to the top of the Gherkin, I've visited Little Britain and Postman's Park, I've reported back from the Museum of London and I've explored the River Fleet. I've even waved at the Lord Mayor.
So, was there anything left to report on? Thankfully yes. The City of London is probably the most concentrated slab of fascinatingness in the entire country, so I was still spoilt for choice. I even went back to a couple of places I've visited before - please try not to notice. Here's where I went...
Somewhere famous: The Bank of England
Only one bank in the entire City of London was open on Saturday - how convenient that it was the Bank of England. This is the esteemed national institution to which we all belong but from which we can never draw money. And it's only open to the public twice a year, once for the City of London Festival and once for Open House weekend, so you're going to have to wait until September for your peek. Believe me, it's a rare treat to be allowed inside.
From outside the Bank of England looks more like an administrative fortress [photo]. A high windowless curtain wall of Portland stone encloses its perimeter - all that remains of Sir John Soane's original Georgian building. Seven storeys are visible above ground, with another three levels of basements and vaults hidden away beneath. The bank's staff enter through tall black iron doors on Threadneedle Street [photo], whereas we mere mortals were admitted through the insignificant side entrance. There weren't many of us, and the few tourists who'd stumbled along seemed wholly unaware that this was a very special opportunity not usually available to the general public. We were searched by top-hatted security gents wearing pink frock coats (it wasn't easy to take them seriously) and then ushered through the lobby to begin our guided tour. A long corridor stretched off into the distance, its floor covered by painstakingly precise mosaics loaded with numismatic symbolism. Everywhere the craftsmanship was excellent, at least in the areas we were allowed to see. Nevertheless the current building is of 1930s vintage and so had a 'town hall' feel in many places, with 'lift block' lobbies, payphone kiosks and wide stone staircases. Most of the back rooms, we were assured, look instead like any other faceless modern office with computer terminals and divided-off desks.
The Governor's Room is a mix of the grand and the utilitarian. Current boss Merv has a big desk with two monitors, a civil service issue desk-tidy and three artworks depicting London scenes on his wall. To one side is an old brown table used by every governor since 1694, and up on the mantlepiece a commemorative cricket ball and a signed Aston Villa football. He also looks out into the inner Garden Court, planted with mulberry trees cut from the churchyard which used to stand on this site. Upstairs the rooms are grander still. The First Floor Ante Room boasts red silk wallpaper and an intricate 18th century globe. The Court Room, retained from Sir John Soane's original building, has an opulent ceiling dripping with gold detail (and a matching carpet). We also got to stand in the octagonal Committee Room where the Monetary Policy Committee met last Thursday to determine UK interest rates (4.5% again? OK).
After 45 fascinating minutes we rounded off our visit in the Bank's museum (which is open to the public). It's surprisingly big, which means lots of in-depth displays about banknotes, the bank's history, banking, bankers and general bankiness. It's not somewhere to bring a 5-year old, but budding accountants and bank clerks would find much of interest. And you get the opportunity to handle a genuine (and surprisingly heavy) gold bar - worth either 28 pounds or 137 thousand pounds depending on whether you're weighing it or buying it. How many other banks offer this level of service to their customers?
by tube: Bank
Somewhere pretty: St Dunstan's in the East
Most of the City of London isn't pretty, not unless you like office blocks. Some of these are dead impressive, but the great majority are merely bland and functional [photo]. Every weekend the City is abuzz with construction workers and cranes [photo], knocking down the old stuff (15 years is old round here) and erecting something dazzling in its place. But scattered inbetween all these financial temples, if you know where to look, are several tiny oases of green. Small gardens where office workers can eat their lunchtime sandwiches before slipping back indoors for another hard afternoon of profit accumulation. One of the largest is Finsbury Circus, which is big enough to contain its own perfectly manicured bowling green, but most are considerably titchier. There's usually a bench or two, and maybe a strip of grass or some flower beds, and (useful tip, this) they're also the only places in the City with litter bins.
One of the most unusual, and utterly charming, small gardens in the City is that of St Dunstan's in the East [photo]. The early medieval church here was severely damaged during the Great Fire of London in 1666 and then rebuilt (with a new Wren steeple), only to be severely damaged again during the Blitz in 1941. The steeple survived along with a few walls and arched doorways, and the site left derelict until the Corporation of London decided to turn the ruins into a garden in 1967. And what a garden. Vines and climbers have overtaken the remaining walls, and several secluded areas of shrubbery have been created between new twisting paths. There are flowerbeds and compact lawns where the pews used to stand, and a squat fountain in the middle of what was once the nave. Palm trees flap above the lower lawn where, on Saturday, smiling couples sat lazily soaking up the city sun. Who'd have thought that so much could be created out of so small a space? You could walk round the entire garden site in one minute flat, but I guarantee you'll stay longer.
by tube: Monument by bus: 15
Somewhere sporty: Guildhall
The City of London isn't renowned for its sport. There's a swimming pool and a bowling green, and there are several gyms catering to pumped-up financial whizzkids, but there's not really enough room for any major sporting facility. Thankfully, for my purposes at least, this wasn't always the case. 20 centuries ago Londoners flocked from across the City to the site now occupied by the Guildhall for a regular fix of sporting competition and general carnage... because here was the original Roman Amphitheatre.
The Guildhall is the City's seat of local government, and has been since the 15th century [photo]. Entrance to the magnificent medieval Great Hall is free, via the modern administrative block nextdoor (architectural verdict: not lovely). Guildhall's stone walls are (mostly) original, but alas the ornate oak-panelled roof is a post-1941 copy of a post-1666 copy. The hall hosted the trials of both Lady Jane Grey and Archbishop Cranmer, amongst others, and every year the new Mayor's inaugural banquet is held here. Banners representing the 12 great Livery Companies hang beneath the ceiling, as befits the historic headquarters of a ceremonial organisation whose wealth grew out of mercantile trade. Beneath the Guildhall there's the largest medieval crypt in London, while nextdoor there's a rather more recent Art Gallery... which holds a secret.
It's set procedure when erecting a new building in the City to invite archaeologists on site to dig down and check that nothing of ancient importance is about to be obliterated. And so in 1988, when preliminary soundings were being taken for the new Guildhall Art Gallery, Roman remains were unexpectedly discovered in four separate trenches. On joining all the clues together experts realised that they had a major find on their hands - the eastern entrance to London's long lost amphitheatre. Construction of the art gallery was put on hold for five years while plans were redrawn. The curving perimeter of the arena was marked out in black paving slabs around the Guildhall courtyard above [photo], and the new gallery finally opened in 1999 with a restored ancient monument in its basement.
A visit to the Art Gallery will set you back £2.50. For this you get to look at some fine paintings upstairs and entry to the Amphitheatre chamber downstairs. To be honest there's not much to see, just a few chunks of lumpy stone wall [photo], but they've been sympathetically presented within a long dark space. Illuminated green silhouettes provide a sense of scale, if not of history. Cross the line from the 'seating area' into the 'arena' and the sound of cheering fills the air (it was actually recorded at an England football match, but don't tell anyone). At your feet is a preserved wooden drain, used to empty the arena of rainwater and other, rather redder, liquids.
It's not easy to stand here today, beneath the ground, and imagine the amphitheatre as it used to be on the surface. An elliptical stone wall decorated with intricate marble inlays. Travelling gladiators battling one another across the arena. Frightened animals despatched with bloodthirsty brutality. The regular public execution of convicted criminals. 6000 spectators roaring down from rows of tiered wooden seating. And it all happened here, right in the civilised heart of the modern City. Come and see.
by tube: St Paul's, Bank, Moorgate by bus: 100
Somewhere retail: Leadenhall Market
The City of London was established on trade and commerce. Everywhere you look there's somebody selling something to somebody else, be it commodities, financial services, insurance or that strange economic spread betting which burns out sharp-suited City dealers long before their planned early retirement. So it's not surprising that there are, or were, markets everywhere across the Square Mile. Smithfield for meat (still going strong), Billingsgate for fish (now relocated to Docklands) and Spitalfields for fruit and vegetables (now relocated to Leyton) are the most famous of these. One other longstanding retail centre is Leadenhall Market, tucked away atop Cornhill on the site of what used to be Roman London's forum. The original 14th century market specialised in meat, game and fish, and attracted Poulterers and Cheesemongers from across the southeast. It sounds a bit like modern Borough Market, only without the olives and chorizo sausage."Leadenhall Market is at present the largest, and perhaps the best supplied market in Europe. It consists of three courts; the first is called the Beef Market: on Tuesdays this court is a market for leather; on Thursdays, for baize and wool; on Fridays it is a market for hides; and on Saturdays, for beef. The second court is still called the Green Yard and is now a market for veal, mutton, lamb, etc. in the middle, and on the south and west sides, are houses and shops for fishmongers." William Pyne, The Microcosm of London (1808)In 1881 Leadenhall Market was reorganised and the buildings replaced by the stunning iron and glass arcade we see today [photo]. Ornate painted columns support four arched roofs which meet at a central octagonal skylight [photo]. All available surfaces are decorated, mostly in maroon and gold, and Victorian lanterns hang from the ceiling. Unfortunately appearances can be deceptive. Whilst some of today's shops still sell meat, cheese and fish, many others are now just average shopping mall fodder. Look, that's a Pizza Express, and that's Cards Galore, and over there is another outbreak of expensive coffee. The remaining market pubs are better, so I'm told, but they (and every other shop here) were closed on Saturday and the arcade frequented only by inquisitive tourists wielding cameras. I hope that the character of this charming conservation area can survive the retail assault of 21st century London, and I must go back later (on a weekday) to check.
by tube: Bank/Monument by bus: 35, 47, 48, 149, 344
Somewhere random: the Barbican estate
Every time I visit the Barbican I try ever so hard not to get lost, and every time I fail. I'm sure the 1950s architects didn't mean for their concrete community to be quite so impenetrable, quite the opposite in fact, but somehow the walkways and stairwells create an illogical labyrinth that even Theseus might have found tricky to navigate around. Getting into the estate in the first place isn't easy - there are only a few 'gates' around the perimeter of the site, most of these cunningly disguised as uninviting stairwells. To move from place to place you have to follow long concrete walkways six metres above the ground, which pass around and beneath various identikit apartment blocks. The famous Barbican 'yellow line' is painted on the floor for you to follow [photo], but it leads you on without ever explicitly stating where you might be heading. There are signs everywhere, but your final destination tends to remain tantalisingly out of reach. I love the place.
The Barbican estate was constructed in the 1960s and 70s to reclaim one of the most heavily bombed parts of the City. Arguments had raged for years as to exactly what to do with the site, with all proposals having to combine maximum open space with maximum accommodation. The final solution was a collection of tower and terrace blocks, raised up on concrete stilts surrounding a central lake and gardens. There are precisely 2014 flats here, in a variety of shapes and sizes from studio to penthouse - most minimalist but all modernist. I looked into renting a flat here when I first moved to London, but only for a couple of minutes once I'd discovered the price. If you want to know what it's like to live here or to find out more about the history of the place, then I can heartily recommend the Barbican Living website for a fascinatingly in-depth read. Check out the multitude of side menus for maximum information. What do the kitchens look like? What's it like living at the top of Shakespeare Tower? Which blocks get the most sunshine? It's all there.
There's plenty for the casual visitor to enjoy around the Barbican, even if you never quite know where or what you might stumble upon next. The church in the middle comes as a bit of a shock on your first visit [photo]. Look, there are jagged relics of the old City Wall beside the southern lake, and even the last semi-circular remnants of a defensive tower [photo]. Rows of parallel balconies drip with colourful hanging plants [photo]. On closer inspection a large leaking pipe turns out to be a gutter-shaped waterfall [photo]. And something I'd never seen before and was amazed to discover - there's a vast glass conservatory here filled with tropical plants (alas only open for visitors on Sunday afternoons) [photo].
And then, of course, there's the famous Barbican Arts Centre [photo]. If you thought finding your way around outside was difficult, somehow this feels harder. You probably won't enter on the level you require and so may end up in the art gallery, cinema or library by mistake. Where are the stairs to get you from up here to just down there? It's not always obvious. An innocent looking corridor may turn out to be a long curving exhibition space. Trying to negotiate your way to the toilets during a concert interval requires time, and maybe a compass. And yet there's a bold simplicity to the entire design, complete with sweeping surfaces and chunky graphics [photo], and the split-level foyers sort of make sense eventually. There's always an intriguing selection of events being staged here too, which the estate's residents are fortunate enough to have on their doorstep. But you probably couldn't afford to live here, not least because of the exorbitant service charges, so you'll have to make do with the occasional visit. Good luck finding your way out.
by tube: Barbican, Moorgate by bus: 153
Somewhere historic: London Wall
I was spoilt for choice when searching for historic sites in the City of London. The whole place is built on history, two millennia of the stuff, so it's hard to miss. I decided to head for the structure which defined the perimeter of the City from its earliest days - the London Wall. This defensive fortification has long outlived Roman London, but over the centuries most of its stone has either crumbled or been nicked for use in buildings elsewhere. Just three main fragments remain - on Tower Hill, in the grounds of the Barbican and close to the Museum of London. I made tracks to the latter.
These photographs show what's left of London's Roman Wall along Noble Street - a few chunks of stonework rising up from a shallow grassy moat. It's not much to see really, more fascinating for what it is than for how it looks. But what's that non-Roman structure in the background? It's one of EC2's newest office blocks - onelondonwall - that's what. The lettings brochure describes this as "a new City landmark that simultaneously complements and eclipses its neighbours" but it's really just another pretentious pile of steel and glass squeezed into a recently-demolished corner plot. Apparently this Foster-designed building "sits naturally on the 2,000-year-old London Wall, effortlessly blending into its historic environment". Bollocks it does. A metal staircase emerges from the basement a few inches behind the old Roman wall, instantly detracting from the unique nature of this ancient site. Blocks of white Portland Stone protrude from the main building like a set of modern Lego bricks. A nasty low ornamental wall (complete with birdbaths), of the type that Essex garden centres churn out in their hundreds, has been erected inbetween two Roman segments. And, most hideous of all, someone's dumped a metal footbridge across the moat so that corporate delegates attending functions in the ground floor suites can walk out onto the grass for a fag and a natter. This latter monstrosity belongs not to the new offices but to one of the Livery Companies whose hall has been updated and upgraded on the site. Of all the 107 Guilds, this DIY nightmare can only be the fault of the Plasterers. Bosh bosh wallop. What price history, eh?
by tube: Barbican by bus: 100
www.flickr.com : City of London gallery
(50 photographs from around the City)
Saturday, July 08, 2006
Other Londons are available
London (Ontario, Canada): A city in Middlesex County, on the Thames River, near Windsor (hmm, that's familiar). It's Canada's 10th largest city, and the birthplace of both Labatt's and Carling lager (honest). London's oldest residence is Eldon House, built in 1834. This weekend Londoners can enjoy the 12th Sunfest (Celebration of the Global Arts) free in Victoria Park. [population 336,539]
London (Ohio, USA): Madison County's seat of government, which hosts a not-quite world-famous Strawberry Festival every June and the London Wiffleball Tournament every August. [population 8771]
London (Kentucky, USA): The site of Colonel Sanders' first ever KFC restaurant, and now (allegedly) Kentucky's "crossroads to vacation adventure". Every September more than 250,000 visitors descend upon London KY to celebrate the World Chicken Festival and to eat from the World's Largest Stainless Steel Skillet. [population 5692]
London (California, USA): A not terribly interesting census district in Tulare County. [population 1848]
London (Texas, USA): A farming community on Highway 377, about 18 miles NE of Junction in Kimble County. [population 180]
... and quite a few others which don't seem to have websites
Friday, July 07, 2006
It could have been any carriage, any time.
Wait by the doors and let the passengers off the train first. There's space inside if everyone moves down. Come on, move down, please let me squeeze in. If I'm quick I might get that seat... no, a bloke in a suit's just nabbed it. Find a couple of square feet of floor space, maybe down the central aisle, maybe squashed up against that glass panel. I bet I'd be arrested if I were shoved up this close to so many other people anywhere else. Hold onto something, that bar up there will do, and hang on. Scan the carriage, just for something to do, but make it look like I'm staring vacantly into space. Try not to look into anybody else's eyes, they won't appreciate it. I'm surrounded by a random selection of London commuters, every age, every race, every creed. Random people I've never seen before and will probably never see again. Look, she's fast asleep over there. He's lost in headphone world and she's trying to do her make-up without smudging it. Come on, you've been reading that newspaper story for ages, turn the page. I'd stare out of the window if only I could see the window, and if only there was a view. Ouch, there's a shoulderbag jabbing me in the back, or maybe it's a bottle of water. Swing round another corner - oi, try not to topple over on top of me. I wish you'd put deodorant on this morning. I wish I had a seat. I wish my journey was over. But it's just something I have to do every day. It's just another train. It's just another carriage.
Thursday, July 06, 2006
London 2012 - one year closer
It's been 12 months since I stood in Trafalgar Square alongside several thousand other Londoners expecting to hear Paris anointed as the Host City of the 2012 Olympics. When instead Jacques Rogge opened his big envelope and announced 'London', the crowd around me reacted with startled cheers and unexpected euphoria. Maybe everyone was thrilled at the honour of hosting an international sporting extravaganza in their very own backyard, maybe they were just looking forward to the beach volleyball, or maybe they'd forgotten how much it was all going to cost. Suddenly a new clock was ticking - there were just seven years to transform a sprawling wasteland in East London into a world class sporting facility. This week, with one of those years now passed, I went back for another walk around the Lower Lea Valley to see how things are progressing.
There are signs of change all around the perimeter of the Olympic site. Unfortunately most of them prominently feature the telephone number of a local estate agent. Property prices are on the up, as are various new apartment blocks. Admittedly these were all planned and approved before the 2012 decision was made, but they can only breed and multiply as the months go by. A lot of people want to live close to the economically alluring Olympic park, but not too close lest the authorities might forcibly evict them from their home and build a souvenir kiosk or burger restaurant instead.
Inside the Olympic site, by contrast, almost nothing has changed. You might expect several local businesses to have been demolished by now but no, they all still seem to be chugging along as normal. You might expect to see an emerging skyline of giant cranes and scaffolding but no, the view across the valley is still dominated by tall stalking pylons. You might even expect to stumble across a small portakabin inside which Seb Coe makes all his decisions of immense Olympic importance but no, he's safely tucked away inside a rather more luxurious office in Canary Wharf. The only development here so far has been on the drawing board (or its modern digital equivalent), intricately planning how all this normality will be swept wholly and utterly away.
This street corner, for example, is nothing special at present. A row of nondescript warehouses, an long iron shed where fence panels are galvanized and an arc of drooping bollards. If I read the plans for the location of the Olympic Stadium correctly, the finishing line for the 100m, the relays and the marathon runs somewhere across the foreground of my photograph. For now you can stand here unchallenged, unhindered and unnoticed. But just six years separate this industrial nowhere from international everywhere.
There are only six months before the bulldozers move into the north end of the site to make a start on building the Velopark and BMX track (ripping up an existing cycle track in the process, there's irony for you). There's just a year to go until Waterden Road is evacuated to make way for a couple of hockey pitches and a handball arena (forcing the relocation of not one but two large bus depots). And as for work on the Olympic Stadium itself, expect that to begin in mid 2008 (you can bet that Wembley's contractors will not be allowed to tender for the contract). But I fear it's too much to hope that this sweeping redevelopment will retain the charm and character of the existing watery industrial landscape.
So there's very little time left to see the Lower Lea Valley in all its semi-derelict glory. Acres of trees and flowers have budded here for the very last time. The local ducks and moorhens can expect only one more season bringing up their young in the waterside reeds before they're forced to move on. The dragonflies skating down the City Mill River beneath the Greenway probably won't survive the transformation of their habitat into a Transport Interchange and Security Check. And the remaining bollards on the corner of Marshgate Lane don't have long to stand before they're ripped out to make way for the most important 8-lane running track on the planet.
Hurry now, one of the footpaths alongside the Waterworks River has already been sealed off to prevent public access, and I'm sure the remaining (delightful) riverside walks can't be too far behind. You might consider joining the Newham Striders later this month on one of their weekend walks around the Lower Lea Valley. Or just come by yourself, sometime soon, so that you can say you were here. Because I can guarantee that, come 2012, your chances of crossing the finishing line are absolutely nil.
London 2012 Roadshow (kicks off this afternoon, visiting down your way later this month)
Photographs of the Lower Lea Valley
More photographs of the Lower Lea Valley
Olympic Park construction schedule (pdf)
Olympic bid backstory