You either love, or hate it

Today we expect the West End’s shopping streets to put up a show at Christmas, but during the 1960s this wasn’t the case, with only Oxford Street entering into the festive spirit.

The Regent Street Association realising their less prestigious cousin was taking all the compliments were not to be It’s that time of year when we expect Oxford and Regent Street to display for their customers a version of Christmas, and this year, for Oxford Street’s 60th anniversary, we’re promised an ‘environmentally-focussed’ event, reassuring their customers that no polar bears have been harmed in its production.

In the past we have been treated to some seasonal favourites: Marmite that much loved Christmas dinner treat and Regent Street was once given over to the soft drink Tango, which showered the area with bright orange bulbs and banners bearing the message “Tis the season to be Tango’d”.

Today advertisers hold sway, but during the 1960s this wasn’t the case. Only Oxford Street entering into the festive spirit, the Regent Street Association realising their less prestigious cousin was taking all the compliments were not to be outdone. They hired a well-known Italian designer charged with producing a ‘tasteful’ display to rival their competitor.

His solution was to produce giant white flying angels made out of papier-mâché posed with their faces looking down serenely at the crowds below.

London in those days was renowned for rain, in fact, you could spot an American a mile-off for they came here prepared for their visit wearing the ubiquitous white raincoat, Columbo style.

This particular November had seen an exceptional amount of rain, even by London standards.
The Italian designer just hadn’t taken in the fact that Northern Europe is considerably damper than the Mediterranean. Soon the press was running the story about Pregnant Angels, no doubt to the amusement of Oxford Street retailers.

Journalist and author Alf Townsend takes up the story:

I noticed a guy done up in heavy waterproof gear and wearing a yellow sou’wester. He was sitting on a cart that Westminster Council road sweepers used in those days and I thought to myself, “this bloke is out late”. He came over to ask for a light and we got talking. He said his job started after the traffic had died down and, picking up this long pole with a wicked-looking blade at the end, he told me that the pole could reach some 40 feet when it was extended. His job was to pierce the angel’s tummies and let the water out – hence his heavy waterproofs! We had a good laugh over it – especially when he said the guys back at the depot called him, “the Holy Terminator”.

The Regent Street ‘Angels’ can be found on the Guardian’s vintage photographs of Christmas in London.

Featured image: Regent Street – Angel Christmas Lights (2016-2018). The theme is angels, inspired by the first Regent Street Christmas lights in 1954, by Oast House Archive (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Sprucing up London

With its 500 white lights and central location, the Trafalgar Square Christmas tree is one of the most iconic Yuletide symbols for the festive season. Since 1947 the giant Norway spruce has been given annually as a gift from the Norwegian government to thank the British nation for their role in providing a safe haven for King Haakon VII and their government in exile, as well as the small matter of eradicating the Nazis from their country.

What few realise is the inordinate care that the Norwegians take to grow the ‘perfect’ tree. It takes 15 years for your Christmas tree to grow to 6ft to display in your home. For Trafalgar Square’s tree 120 years are needed to reach the optimal height.

A group of eight to ten possible trees are selected from forests outside Oslo. These then undergo special preparation for up to eight years. The surrounding trees are cut down so the chosen ones get enough light. The trees are fertilised to help establish the dark green colour and trimmed to the correct shape.

Then finally, when a tree is to be shipped, the best is selected. For the past decade this we vision has been made by Jon Christiansen, he perfect name for Christmas and the chief city forester for Oslo City Council. The selected tree between 70ft and 75ft is then named ‘The Queen of the Forest’.

During the felling Oslo’s mayor, the Mayor of Westminster Council, the British Ambassador to Norway and local schoolchildren are in attendance.

Carefully moving such a heavy and delicate object is undertaken by truck to Oslo, thence by DFDS Seaways, a Danish freight line and finally by a low loader from the embarkation port to Trafalgar Square. Unloaded and positioned by hydraulic crane, then secured by guy ropes it stands erect outside the National Gallery.

On 3rd December each year, the honour of turning on the lights is usually given to a member of the Norwegian Royal Family.

Photo: Trafalgar Square – Christmas Eve 2011 Peter Trimming (CC BY 2.0)

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 2nd December 2016

London Trivia: Hyde Park sold

On 1 December 1652 the Act of Parliament which ordered the sale of the Crown lands, after the execution of Charles I excepted Hyde Park from its provisions, but on this day it became the subject of a special resolution namely, ‘That Hyde Park be sold for ready money’. The Park’s sale realised £17,068 2s. 8d. The purchasers of the three lots were Richard Wilson, John Lacey, and Anthony Deane.

On 1 December 1930 Matt Munro was born Terence Edward Parsons in Shoreditch. He also sang as Terry Fitzgerald, Al Jordan and Fred Flange

Traitors’ Gate at the Tower of London is not the original, in the 19th century they were sold to a Whitechapel shopkeeper for 15/-

Original Waterloo Bridge was to be named Strand Bridge, during construction the famous victory over Bonaparte took place so Waterloo it was

Just below Tower Bridge, marked by a sign, is ‘Dead Man’s Hole’ where bodies thrown into the river from the Tower and surrounding districts were retrieved and stored in a mortuary before burial

The Imperial War Museum has sections of the original Berlin Wall outside in the gardens, a stark piece of history that anyone can visit

London’s smallest statute in Philpot Lane is a lifesize mouse. It depicts the mouse that would regularly eat the builder’s lunch in 1700

You can drink a Churchill Martini at Browns Hotel where the war leader frequented. It’s rumoured they built a bomb shelter for his use

In 1879 rugby club Saracens named after mediaeval Muslim warriors merged with a club called the Crusaders

On 23 December 1865 Aldersgate Street Tube Station opened. It wasn’t until 1 December 1968 that it was renamed Barbican

Threadneedle Street was once part of the medieval red-light district of London and, as the haunt of prostitutes, rejoiced (if that is the right word) in the name of ‘Gropecuntelane’

The Old Kent Road is the only Monopoly property located south of the River and likewise Whitechapel is the only east London property

CabbieBlog-cab.gifTrivial Matter: London in 140 characters is taken from the daily Twitter feed @cabbieblog.
A guide to the symbols used here and source material can be found on the Trivial Matter page.

Chain reaction for climate change

The story of the Brompton bicycle is much more than a tale of British engineering achievement.

It is a story of loyalty, passion and true British grit of how a bright young engineering graduate with a dogged determination spent years trying to persuade a sceptical world that his ingenious little bike would challenge the very way we all use urban transport.

For this Guest Post Eve Pearce writes that this tiny wheeled wonder that is still manufactured in London integrates perfectly with the London cab.

Cabs Form Part Of Integrated Transport Solution In London

When reading newspapers it is possible to form the opinion that cab drivers and cyclists do not get on. Competing for the same road space with vastly different vehicles is not a recipe for harmony. London leads the way when it comes to cycling in the United Kingdom, the streets are full of cyclists with differing objectives. Commuters speed to work trying to gain an edge over four-wheeled transport whilst leisure cyclists take in the sights of the capital and the hardcore try to emulate London born Tour De France winner Bradley Wiggins. The streets are also full of cycles, more than eight thousand are located in docking stations as part of a city-wide initiative to make cycling accessible by introducing pay as you ride bikes in all areas of London. Affectionately known as “Boris Bikes” the distinctive machines were actually proposed by Ken Livingstone during his term of office before being enthusiastically embraced by the current London Mayor, Boris Johnson. There is another London cycling success story that has provided an integrated transport solution that links cycles and cabs for thousands of commuters across the city.

British Manufacturing Leads The Way

The Brompton bicycle is a modern British manufacturing success story. The company employs over one hundred and forty people in its factory in Brentford and manufactures a range of folding bikes that are exported all over the world. In London, it is hard to miss commuters using their machines as the riding style is upright owing to the styling of the cycle. With smaller wheels than a typical cycle and folding joints in strategic places, the cycle folds down into a small unit that can be carried in one arm without disrupting passers-by. The cycle is so small when folded down it can be deposited in the back of a London cab quite easily and this is the key to the success of Brompton as a manufacturer. Its users are not restricted in the same way other cyclists are. If they choose to cycle to work in a morning they are not obliged to cycle on the return leg. If they are not motivated to cycle or the weather is inclement it is easy to hail a cab and travel with the bike to any destination. A folding bike that compacts to the size of a small piece of hand luggage is the perfect solution for the occasional cyclist. Cab drivers do not have to worry about the terms of their taxi insurance because they are not carrying a bike in a way that affects other road users. There is no increased risk of liability for any driver carrying a passenger travelling with a folding bike.

Quality Ride

Despite its quirky looks and unusual riding style, the Brompton folding bike offers a fun yet comfortable ride. The frame is resilient enough to cope with the streets of London and the addition of mudguards as standard protects riders from any spray thrown up during wet weather. There are many folding bikes on the market but Brompton is the most distinctive and in many ways a trendsetter for that sector. Whilst the Brompton World Championships take place at Goodwood Motor Circuit, London has its own event, the Brompton Urban Challenge. One hundred and twenty-five participants compete in an event that has an orienteering style format and encourages riders to use their skill and ingenuity to make the most out of their folding bike.

The Future

Whilst there may still exist some antipathy between motorists and cyclists in London, the development of London made Brompton in reshaping London as a cycling city has been exciting to watch. Londoners are now used to seeing riders pedalling furiously along the roads in that familiar style or scurrying along the pavement with a bike tucked under their arm. In many cities with a lower participation rate for cycling the machines still, draw incredulous looks from passers-by. In London, there is probably no cab driver that has not had one in the back and in times of poor weather, the London cabbie is the saviour of many stranded commuters. The Office of the Mayor of London announced in 2012 as part of the Olympic Legacy programme, ambitious plans to make cycling in the city even more attractive. The plans are several years from fruition but it is anticipated that cycling knowledge of London cabbies will be developed as demand for its services increases at strategic points on the London cycle path network.

Photo from Lady Fleur who when visiting London wrote an account of 48 hours in London with a Brompton Bike.

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 24th May 2013

Proof that you are not being served in London?

Continuing from last week’s post here is proof of the shrinking high street.

A tradition for many of us ‘baby boomers’ at this time of the year was the annual pilgrimage to one or more of London’s department stores. Curiously many had originated with two owners: Bourne & Hollingsworth; Dickins & Jones; Marshall & Snelgrove; Swan & Edgar; Derry & Toms; Arding & Hobbs; or Swan & Edgar. Many now do not exist as stand-alone department stores, just not able to move with post-war shopping trends.

London’s largest store

Gordon Selfridge London’s greatest department store proprietor saw how trends were changing as early as 1909 when he opened the largest of all stores at that time and allowed customers to see the merchandise on offer, and not as his competitors, offering to show prospective buyers a selection chosen by the shop assistant.

To get some idea of pre-war shopping customs watch any episode of Are You Being Served?

War years had protected most stores from the new style, but by the 1970s most had suffered from the birth of style-shopping and both management and staffs were unable to update fast enough to attract the newly-moneyed.

The very best service

Politeness, knowledge of stock and free advice gave way to self-service racks stocking the latest fashions which would change by the season.

The specialist stores: Lilywhites for sporting wear; Fenwicks aimed at country ladies of a certain age; and Libertys for fabrics have clung on, but most have succumbed to the supermarkets of TK Maxx, H&M or the nightmarish souk – Primark.

Should you be in any doubt about the changing face of the high streets consider this list of closed department stores compiled by Diamond Geezer:

Central: Army & Navy (Victoria), Bourne & Hollingsworth (Oxford Street), Catesby’s (Tottenham Court Road), Civil Service Supply Association (Strand), Daniel Neal (Portman Square), Debenham & Freebody (Wigmore Street), Dickins & Jones (Regent Street), Gamages (Holborn), Gorringes (Victoria), Jordans (Lisson Grove), Marshall & Snelgrove (Oxford Street), Swan & Edgar (Piccadilly Circus), Thomas Wallis (Holborn), Woolland Brothers (Knightsbridge), Whiteleys (Bayswater)

North: John Barnes (Finchley Road), Bartons (Wood Green), B B Evans (Kilburn), Evans and Davies (Palmers Green), Jones Brothers (Holloway Road), Pearsons (Wood Green), Stephens (Stoke Newington), Wards (Seven Sisters), Wilsons (Crouch End)

West: Barbers (Fulham), Barkers of Kensington, Bentalls (Ealing), Derry & Toms (Kensington), F H Rowse (West Ealing), General Trading Company (Kensington), Goslings (Richmond), John Sanders (Ealing), Pontings (Kensington), Randalls (Uxbridge), Soper’s (Harrow), Wright Brothers (Richmond)

South: Allders (Croydon, Sutton), Arding and Hobbs (Clapham Junction), Bon Marché (Brixton), Grants (Croydon), Kennards (Croydon), Pratts (Streatham), Quin & Axtens (Brixton), Shinners (Sutton)

Southeast: Chiesmans (Lewisham, Bexleyheath), Cuffs (Woolwich), Fantos (Deptford), Garretts (Woolwich), Hides (Bexleyheath), Hinds (Eltham), Jones and Higgins (Peckham), Medhursts (Bromley), Pyne Brothers (Deptford), Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society (Woolwich), Tower House (Lewisham), Walter Cobb (Sydenham)

East: Bearmans (Leytonstone), Boardmans (Stratford), Chiesmans (Ilford, Upton Park), Dawson’s (City Road), Dudley’s (Dalston), Gardiner’s (Whitechapel), Houndsditch Warehouse (Aldgate), Harrison Gibson (Ilford), Keddies (Romford), J R Roberts (Stratford), Wickhams (Stepney)

Various: British Home Stores, Co-Op, Marks & Spencer, Owen Owen (Finchley, Ilford, Richmond, Uxbridge)

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 13th December 2016

Taxi talk without tipping

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