Friday, January 30, 2004

Theobald's Park

I'm just back from deepest Hertfordshire, my two days of 'team-building' complete. Thankfully what we got to do was quite useful - no trying to support bricks on towers constructed from newspaper for us - although other groups of delegates on site weren't quite so lucky. I've suffered from both overeating and overheating, so it's good to have escaped the corporate hotel lifestyle and to be back home again.

The old mansion at Theobald's Park looked delightful in the snow, looking out across the glistening Lea Valley, surrounded by deer-filled woodland. The original Theobalds was the favourite hunting lodge of James I, but fell into ruins after the king died here in 1625. The main part of the present building dates from the 18th century and has since been owned by an MP (1763), a rich London brewer (1820), the Admiral of the Fleet (1910), the Metropolitan Police riding school (1939), a local secondary school (1951), and finally a conference centre (1995). The latest owners have restored some of the old house to gilt-edged wood-panelled splendour, but I don't think that flipcharts, vending machines and Sky TV were part of the original Georgian decoration.

And yes, down at the end of the drive, within sight of the 'Lady Meux restaurant', lies Temple Bar (see yesterday). Or, at least, what's left of Temple Bar, which isn't much. Just a small section of the east wall remains, surrounded by towering scaffolding that gives some idea of the scale of the original structure. A handful of workmen were hiding in the portakabins for warmth, occasionally popping out to dismantle a little more of the remaining wall. Some of the large stones that made up the arch were lying around on pallets, covered by snow, ready to be transported back to London. It won't be long before there's nothing left here but a muddy clearing in the woods, and conference delegates will have to make do with a stroll in the Italian Garden, or just another dip in the spa bath.

You'll be able to see Temple Bar reborn later this year, back in London at Paternoster Square beside St Paul's Cathedral. Latest news here. This ancient gate to the City of London certainly deserves to be seen by more than a few corporate freeloaders, squirrels and delivery lorries, but I'm sure one corner of Hertfordshire will be sad to see it go.

 Thursday, January 29, 2004

Temple Bar

Work are sending me away, out of snow-splattered London, for two days. It's only for one night, but I can't say I'm delighted to be uprooted from my spiritual home merely for the sake of 'team-building'. I think that was the excuse they gave anyway. Still, things could be much worse. They're sticking us in a country-manor-cum-conference-centre within half a mile of the M25, which is barely outside London at all. And, lurking in the grounds, forgotten for decades, lies one of the City's most famous landmarks...

Temple Bar used to be located where the Strand meets Fleet Street, one of the ancient gateways into the City of London, named after the local Inns of Court. The first bar was just a chain across the road, the second a wooden structure with a prison on top, and the third (and final) a magnificent arch built from Portland stone. And yes, like everything else in this Fire-ravaged part of London it was built by Sir Christopher Wren - did this man ever rest? In the 18th century the heads of traitors were displayed on iron spikes across the top of the arch. Sorry, this is all sounding like a repeat of last week, isn't it?

By the late 19th century there was just one tiny problem - the gateways through the arch were rather narrow and therefore unsuited to ever-increasing amounts of road traffic. In 1878 the Corporation of London dismantled the arch, brick by brick, and hid it away in a yard off Farringdon Road. A pedestal with a large gold dragon was erected in its place, and the old bar was forgotten.

Salvation came from an unlikely source. Lady Meux was a banjo-playing barmaid who had married into high society but wanted desperately to prove her respectability. She had the bricks of Temple Bar shipped up to Hertfordshire on horse-drawn trolleys and reassembled in the grounds of her country house - Theobald's Park. Garden parties were held to celebrate its arrival, and such famous people as Edward VII and Winston Churchill were entertained in the arch's upper chamber. For a brief season, Temple Bar was back in the limelight. It didn't last. Before long the monument was lying fenced off and forgotten in overgrown woodland, slowly crumbling away.

Until recently, that is. Suddenly Temple Bar is on its way back to the City, not to its original location but to a new site in the shadow of St Paul's Cathedral. This is Paternoster Square (above left), a new piazza of questionable architectural merit, yet another swathe of office space and designer shops. The developers want to add a certain historical respectability to their new project, just like Lady Meux, so they're having Temple Bar shipped all the way back from Hertfordshire. Workmen started dismantling the arch at Theobalds last October and it appears I'm visiting only just in time before they take the last few bricks down for good. Meanwhile the scaffolding is going up in Paternoster Square (right) and Temple Bar should be reassembled here by the end of the year.

An excellent website charts the progress of the Temple Bar project, with daily photos of the stonemasons at work and all the latest news (they found a time capsule inside one brick a couple of weeks ago).

So, I may be out of general circulation until late tomorrow, but at least I'll have another slice of lost London to keep me company. Hopefully I'll have time to sneak out from the planned team-building activities to take a look at the team doing the unbuilding. Temple Bar, poor thing, has been trapped out of town for over a century. I'm only away for the one night, but I'm pleased we'll both be back home soon.

 Sunday, January 18, 2004

Oranges and Lemons

Oranges and lemons
  say the bells of St Clements
You owe me five farthings
  say the bells of St Martins
When will you pay me?
  say the bells of Old Bailey
When I grow rich
  say the bells of Shoreditch
When will that be?
I do not know
  says the great bell at Bow
Here comes a candle to light you to bed
Here comes a chopper to chop off your head

The nursery rhyme "Oranges and lemons" has been sung by children in London for hundreds of years, probably since the 17th century. Several London churches are mentioned in the rhyme, and the original tune mimicked the peals of their bells. There have been many different versions of the rhyme over the years, including different words and a number of different churches, but the most common version features just six. I've been out and about in the City and the East End tracking down these six churches and some of the background to the rhyme, and now I'm ready to report back. You'll find the full story of the rhyme on its own page, here. Hurry over there and have a read - chop chop.

Read the whole of Oranges and Lemons week on one page by clicking here.

 Saturday, January 17, 2004

Leap for London

London's bid for the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games has been launched. As expected, 500 acres of industrial wasteland in the Lower Lea Valley in East London are at the heart of the proposals. An Olympic stadium, village, aquatic centre and velodrome will be appearing on my run-down inner-city doorstep, fingers crossed. The Olympic bid, however, was launched five miles away at the Royal Opera House in the heart of swanky Covent Garden. A few local multi-ethnic schoolchildren were transplanted to wave ribbons and play judo in an inspirational manner, but the bid launch emphasised London's historic and cultural heritage instead. A wide range of additional tourist-friendly locations are being proposed for the Games, presumably so that visiting IOC members don't have to spend all their time standing on bleak building sites in hard hats and wellies.

So, if the Olympics come to London, where will the other events be held?
Beach Volleyball (Horse Guards Parade): Hordes of topless women shivering in light July drizzle, ogled by nearby civil servants.
Gymnastics (Millennium Dome): After 12 years of expensive nothingness, this white elephant will finally find a use. For a week.
Equestrian (Greenwich Park): Lots of horses and horsey women churning up the lawns beneath the Royal Observatory.
Triathlon (Hyde Park): The only safe place in London to go cycling, because there are no passing buses to fall underneath.
Archery (Lord's): Because cricket isn't an Olympic sport. Just as well, we've probably got better medal chances in archery.
Fencing (Alexandra Palace): Hopefully that's fencing the sport, not the sort of fencing that signifies unfinished building works.
Rowing (Eton College): This posh school is about as far away from East London as you can get, both in distance and in wealth.
Baseball (Regent's Park): Nobody over here will go watch, but at least all the American visitors' hotels will be right nextdoor.
Indoor Sports (ExCel Centre): International Boxing, Weightlifting and Taekwondo Exhibition opens July 2012.
Football (Wembley Stadium): Assuming they've finished rebuilding it by then. The one event we invented but never bother entering.
Tennis (Wimbledon): Another event we invented but should never bother entering. We're only good at selling the strawberries.
Sailing (Weymouth): Racing yachts down the Thames would be silly, and Southend just isn't glamorous, so ScaryDuckland it is.
Shooting (Bisley): Not East London? That's odd, because I'd have thought the streets of Hackney were already ideal for shooting.
Marathon (Champs Elysée): Alas, the 2012 Olympics will probably go to Paris or somewhere else instead. Pity, it won't be quite the same watching everything on television.

 Friday, January 09, 2004

Local transport news (2) - Bow Road tube station

Last July I ranted about my local tube station being an under-resourced ruin, with not a penny spent on it for years. Until today, that is. Tube operating company Metronet is launching a multi-million pound five year programme to renovate more than 150 Underground stations, all part of the government's controversial public-private funded infrastructure programme. And, what do you know, the very first station to be renovated will be Bow Road, starting today. About time too. They haven't told us local passengers yet - I only uncovered the news in Metronet's in-house journal (check pdf pages 6-7 and 28-30) - but renovation is now imminent. Apparently Bow Road station is a Grade II listed building, and we have serious problems with 'water ingress behind a brick retaining wall'. That would explain the acres of peeling paint I get to stare at each morning. Hopefully not for too much longer though.

I wonder if workmen will finally get round to updating the sign outside the station, the one that says Bow Road is on the "District and Metropolitan lines". Bow Road's not been on the Metropolitan line since 1990 when the Hammersmith and City line took over the section east of Liverpool Street. But, I read, there are plans to change that back again. Tube bosses want Metropolitan line trains to run from northwest London right through to Barking again, hopefully by 2011. Meanwhile the Hammersmith and City and Circle lines will be sort-of-merged to provide what's being called a 'T-Cup' service. Trains will run from Hammersmith to Edgware Road, then continue all the way round what's now the Circle line before terminating at Edgware Road second time around. You heard it here first. I heard it here first. And no, I don't believe it'll happen either.

Meanwhile there are already moves afoot to upgrade all the District line trains that run through Bow Road. The 20-year old rolling stock is to be renovated, one train at a time, with the first new interiors due to come on track just after Easter. All upgraded by 2008, apparently. You can see what the new interiors will look like here. Lime-green cattle truck chic, I fear.

geeklink 1: District Dave's District Line page
geeklink 2: Antony's District line photographs
geeklink 3: cab-ride videos - into Bow Road and out again
geeklink 4: Clive's District Line line guide
geeklink 5: London Underground chat forum

 Thursday, January 08, 2004

Local transport news (1) - on the buses
(for all my local readers - and hi to Richard from over the road)

Route 8: I never tire of watching the big red Routemaster buses chugging away as they set off from Bow Church heading for central London. Alas, they won't be chugging for much longer. Routemasters may be historic (50 years old this year, in fact) but these classic buses are also chronic polluters and so they're all being replaced. It's been confirmed that Route 8 is being converted to normal dull double deckers on June 26th (the new buses will look like this, only with an 8 on the front). Expect me to be out with my camera on June 25th. [geeklink 1] [geeklink 2]

Route 25: Mayor Ken has taken delivery of three special hydrogen-powered zero-emission fuel cell buses. London's first green buses will be red, and they'll be running on Route 25 starting this month. The buses run on hydrogen gas, contained in six cylinders on the bus roof, and emit only pure water vapour. Apparently we're quite safe - hydrogen-powered vehicles don't catch fire and kill everyone on board any more. More information on these futuristic buses here and here. The golden age of steam is returning to Bow Road. Just not for very long...

Route 25 (again): The 25 is one of the most heavily-used routes in the capital - always busy and often seriously overcrowded. Transport for London have come up with what they hope will be a solution to this problem - bendy buses. On June 26th (it's that date again) all the double-deckers on Route 25 will be replaced by single-decker double-length buses, with less seats but more standing room. Great big lumbering articulated buses will be attempting to manoeuvre their way from Oxford Circus to Ilford, and I must say I have my doubts they'll manage. Expect me to be out with my camera on June 26th. (Bendy buses are also coming to routes 149 (April 24th), 73 (May 1st), 12 (July 31st) and 207 (November 13th). People really aren't happy about bendy 73s). [geeklink 1] [geeklink 2] [geeklink 3]

 Wednesday, January 07, 2004

is Channel 4's latest week-long attempt to attract viewers. It's a bedtime reality show that's not quite Big Brother, a 'scientific experiment' presided over by Professor Dermot O'Leary. Twelve human lab rats are attempting to go without sleep for a week in an attempt to win lots of money. Hopefully none of the twelve are taking part merely to become famous, because the rest of the media appear to be yawning almost as much as the contestants. Even the Sun newspaper appears disinterested, which is odd given that both the Sun and Shattered are both produced nextdoor to each other in the same street in East London.

Pennington Street is a dark oppressive road in Wapping, deep in the heart of the old London docks. A high 19th century brick wall runs for a quarter of a mile along most of one side of the road, blocking out the light. And behind this sheer wall lies
Rupert Murdoch's huge News International printing plant, dominating the entire length of the street. It's very big, it's very long, it's very modern, and it looks very out of place. Lorries sweep out of the building down futuristic tubes and journos patronise the nearby wine bars. Somewhere deep inside, presumably, tomorrow's Page 3 girl is being touched up.

The rest of Pennington Street is lined by tall ex-warehouses. One of these, at the eastern end of the street, was built in 1814 for the storage of imported tobacco. Local manufacturers turned these brown leaves into cigars, pipe tobacco, cigarettes and snuff for the gentlemen of 19th century London. The building is still most impressive, from the inside if not from the outside, blessed with bricklined vaults, great timber roof trusses and cast iron fittings. In 1992 the warehouse was renovated and re-opened as the exclusive Tobacco Dock shopping centre, complete with two full-size pirate ships. Unfortunately the shops were too far from the tourist trail, and too pricey for the locals, so Tobacco Dock soon closed down. The site has been vacant for years, but is still occasionally used as a venue for swish celeb parties (PR events for the launches of Harry Potter, Moulin Rouge and Lord of the Rings, for example).

But, this week, Tobacco Dock has awoken from its slumber to host the filming of Shattered. Or, as I discovered at 6pm yesterday, 'shuttered'. The whole place was locked up, with nothing to be seen but a laminated sign on the gate awaiting the arrival of tonight's studio audience. Despite an advert on a nearby bus stop urging the public to , nobody else was around. My audience of one slipped away into the night. I hope the programme is faring better.

 Tuesday, January 06, 2004

Three books about London (wot i got for xmas)

London history: London - the Biography (Peter Ackroyd) £12.99
A real epic of a book this, and so good that I got given a second copy this Christmas. It's a history of the capital in 79 non-chronological chapters, with the city's story told theme by theme. Brilliantly readable, Ackroyd intertwines scholarly detail with imaginative description. At just over a kilogram this is a heavyweight book in every way, and highly recommended.

London geography: London Revealed (Julian Shuckburgh) £25
You've probably seen the Millennium Map online, that complete aerial record of the UK used by various mapping websites. The Queen's a shareholder, you know. This atlas combines their modern overhead photography of the capital with diverse historical and geographical themes. See where Roman London used to be, pick out locations mentioned by Dickens, trace London's lost underground rivers and zoom in on where the Jack the Ripper's murders took place. Perfect for very small coffee tables.

London travelogue: London Orbital (Iain Sinclair) £7.99
On the eve of the Millennium, Iain went for a walk around the M25. Not on the road, you understand, but sort of nearby. And then he came home and wrote about his circuitous journey. Unfortunately he seems to have written more about the walk than the places, but his writing is inventive and beautifully constructed. Plus he spends 8 pages walking through Bow, heading from the Dome up along the river Lea out to the motorway ringroad, so I've got to let him off being a bit of a plodder.

 Thursday, January 01, 2004

New Year - Option 2: Stand by the River Thames

I nearly stayed in, but the thought of the Scottish TV Hogmanay special was just too hideous to contemplate. I headed (rather late) to central London, where the streets were full of drunkards and the pavements covered by puddles that definitely weren't rain. By half past eleven the vast expanse of Trafalgar Square was already full. The police had been busy blocking off most of the surrounding streets, leaving the rest of us to wander around blindly like lab rats in a giant maze. Eventually I found a path through to the Embankment, where Big Ben and the London Eye came into view.

The best vantage point for the night's firework display was Hungerford Bridge, but the police had already sealed that off and stolen the entire view for themselves. The crowds below the bridge were particularly thick, but I was still determined to push on upriver much closer to Westminster. London's legendary Hare Krishna procession came to my aid, clearing a joyful path through the crowds, and I was able to pass through in the slipstream.

Midnight approached, and I was perfectly located opposite the London Eye and within striking distance of Big Ben as the first chimes rang out. Unfortunately the less intelligent amongst the crowd took this as the signal that the New Year had begun, whereas in fact there were still twenty seconds to go until the first proper bong. A great cheer went up, drowning out the rest of the chimes and bongs, leaving us all merely celebrating approximately 2004-ish. Until Big Ben gets a second hand, the exact arrival of the New Year will be easier to spot in the Orkneys on the telly rather than in London from 200 metres away. Right on cue it started to drizzle.

All eyes then turned to the Eye, its pods lit up and starting to pulsate. We had a couple of minutes to wait before the first fireworks shot up from the river, and then the Eye itself erupted with coloured flame. And then some more sparkles, and mild whooshes, and fiery explosions, and a short sky-filling finale. The crowds waited in vain for an encore, not quite believing it was time to go home already. Mayor Ken was right that this was only going to be a brief display, no more than three minutes, but definitely wrong that it would look better on the television (I've rewound the video, and those Scottish TV producers cut the event to shreds).

Those revellers who'd brought their own champagne stood around and toasted 2004 in plastic beakers. Some who were rather more merry, or perhaps just friendly, addressed every passer-by with New Year greetings. The rest of us slowly streamed away, either back to rejoin the West End crowds or off on a long-distance trek to the nearest still-open tube station. It was raining more persistently by the time I finally got home, and my feet ached, but I was glad I'd made the effort to see in 2004 in real life. The year can only get better though.

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