Too romantic to survive

What have these two men got in common? The first was a founding member of the Victorian Society and a passionate defender of Victorian architecture, after failing his degree at Magdalen College, Oxford, he started his career as a journalist and ended it as one of the most popular British Poets Laureate to date and a much-loved figure on British television beloved by generations; the second a security guard.

[D]ubbed ‘The Most Romantic Building in London’, the Midland Grand Hotel is on the cusp of returning to its original purpose after closing its doors three quarters of a century ago. The bubble is nothing new and so it was when this Victorian gothic revival building was nearing completion. It was the last of the great railway termini hotels of the Victorian era and by far the most expensive, costing 14 times as much to build as it near neighbour the Great Northern Hotel.

During its construction in an effort to cut costs a floor was shaved off the original plan and the lavish ornament cheapened, oak was substituted with cheaper deal and for the completion of its interiors, its celebrated and workaholic architect Sir George Gilbert Scott was replaced with a more malleable practice. Upon opening the Midland Grand was the epitome of luxury and one of the most spectacular gothic revival buildings in the world, boasting among other “luxuries” a Ladies’ Drawing Room which later gained notoriety as the first Ladies’ Smoking Room in London, the room was equipped with an electrophone, linking guests to the Queen’s Hall and other London halls and churches.

grand3 But within 20 years its clients were expecting what the Grand lacked, for the hotel was built before the time of en suite bathrooms, requiring an army of servants to scuttle around the 300 rooms, laden with tubs, bowls, spittoons and chamber pots. After struggling on for a few more years the hotel finally closed in 1935, going the way of all large buildings in London and became offices for its owners the railway company, its interiors were enhanced with partitions, suspended ceilings and fluorescent lights.

In the Sixties attempts were made to demolish it with its current owners describing it as “completely obsolete and hopeless” preferring the simpler lines of its neighbour at King’s Cross.

At this stage in the Grand’s life our poet laureate in the shape of John Betjeman led a campaign and only stopped its demolition at the 11th hour, later gaining a Grade I listing in 1967.

By 1988 the building was declared unsafe, and remained unloved and forgotten by the public as they rushed past along the Euston Road, and frozen in time the haunt of film makers and pigeons. 1995-5 saw £9 million of public money spent on restoring its interiors, but from the exterior it was for all the world unloved.

Enter now the hotels most unlikely supporter a security guard employed for 30 years to protect its empty shell, Roydon Stock. So captivated was he by this building that he is now the major authority on its heritage, giving tours into its dark interior, correcting historians and even debating with English Heritage on its restoration.

Now after £200 million spent by a consortium of developers which have against all the odds converted its upper floors into 67 rooftop flats, and soon next year the Old Lady of Euston Road will reopen for business as a Marriott Renaissance Hotel.

If people like John Betjeman and Roydon Stock hadn’t fought for its survival we would probably have a modern monstrosity in its place as with Marathon House further along the road.

I’ll finish with the words of Rowan Moore the Architecture Critic for the Evening Standard who has put it much better than me:

The building is also a rebuke to all those who wanted to demolish it in the name of efficiency and modernity. Fifty years ago they were many, but the idea now seems inconceivable. There are currently similar mutterings about a work of George Gilbert Scott’s grandson Giles, Battersea Power Station. Anyone who doubts the wisdom of preserving the latter should go to St Pancras and see what an awkward pile of old bricks can do.

On location in London

[L]ondon has always been a producers dream when looking for locations for their latest project. If it wasn’t for the weather, which of course is why Hollywood was originally chosen, many more cinematographic delights would be shot here in London.

So today I give you CabbieBlog’s top 10 films shot on location in London.

Brannigan Brannigan (1975)
John Wayne as Jim Brannigan who is sent to London to bring back an American mobster being held for extradition, but when he arrives, the prisoner has been kidnapped.

I think the producers of this film were the London Tourist Board, for every time Brannigan steps out of his flat in Prince of Wales Drive, Battersea we are treated to views of London. The speed of the cars is remarkable, one minute we are crossing Chelsea Bridge and seconds later Tower Bridge has miraculously appeared ahead of us. I wish driving in London was that easy, but there again I’m not “The Duke”.

Notting Hill Notting Hill (1999)
A tousled haired tosser living the life of a simple bookshop owner has his life changed when he meets the most famous film star in the world, he’s in love but will she fall for him?

Richard Curtis wrote this script around his own neighbourhood and in the process substantially increased the value of his own house and focussed attention on what is one of the most overrated districts of London. In the film Hugh Grant lived at 280 Westbourne Park Road, sadly, the blue door has now been replaced.

The_Lavender_Hill_Mob The Lavender Hill Mob (1951)
Filmed at a time when Clapham was not regarded as South Chelsea, it was then just a working class area with chirpy London crooks. Looking at it now you realise just how grim London looked after the war.

Alec Guinness plays a bank transfer agent who has overseen the taking delivery of gold bullion for the past 20 years. One day he befriends Pendlebury (Stanley Holloway), a maker of souvenirs and together they plan to forge the stolen gold into harmless-looking toy Eiffel Towers and smuggle it out England into France.

Ealing Studios while planning the bank-robbery film, asked the Bank of England to devise a way in which a million pounds could be stolen from the bank. A special committee was created to come up with an idea, and their plan is the one used in the film.

10 Rillington Place 10 Rillington Place (1971)
Based on the true story of British mass-murderer John Reginald Christie, (played brilliantly by Richard Attenborough), who drugged, raped, and strangled eight women (one of whom was his wife) between 1940 and 1953, hiding their bodies in the garden as well as in a large cupboard, which he then covered up with wallpaper inside his home.

A place of such great infamy that following the John Christie murders (and Sir Ludovic Kennedy’s book) the road was renamed Rushton Close before being pulled down completely. Today part of Bartle Road occupies the site.

Alfie Alfie (1966)
With the Sixties in full swing and London the centre of the Universe, Michael Caine shot to stardom as a callous Cockney womaniser.

Filmed around King’s Cross with the famous Victorian gasometers much in evidence in the background the gasometers  are now being reinstated behind the station. Alfie’s seedy bedsite at 29 St Stephen’s Gardens hasn’t really changed at all, apart from the inevitable gentrification Notting Hill.

My-beautiful-laundrette My Beautiful Laundrette (1985)
Writer Hanif Kureishi deliberately spelt launderette incorrectly but we can forgive him with this feel good film set within the Asian community in South London during the Thatcher years. Displaying those values expounded at the time of money, hard work and “anybody can make it”. The young Asian entrepreneur employs his school friend Daniel Day Lewis (before he became a Mohican) to help run his business.

Set around Wandsworth it depicts this area of south London area perfectly in the 1980s and of Londoners attitude towards the growing Asian population.

Shaun-of-the-Dead Shaun of the Dead (2004)
Hold on, a British comedy that’s smart, not by Richard Curtis and funny? Based on the simplest of premises: In a city packed with blank-eyed wage slaves and whacked-out club heads, how long would it take us to notice the arrival of George A. Romero’s lumbering, flesh-chomping undead? Filmed around north London with extras looking like some of my passengers on a Saturday night.

Mona Lisa Mona Lisa (1986)
With Bob Hoskins and Michael Caine in a film of London gangsters how could I leave it out of my top ten? A sad and sensitive portrayal of a small-time crook trying to fit into a world that simultaneously rejects and baffles him following his belated release from prison. He takes the only job he can get to ferry high-class hooker Simone (Cathy Tyson) between assignations in a melancholically sleazy London. Avert your eyes in the torture scenes.

Shakespeare in love Shakespeare in Love (1998)
This is multi-Oscar winner one of my favourite films of all time. Young aspiring playwright William Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) struggles to write Romeo and Ethel, The Pirate’s Daughter and aristocrat Viola de Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow) defies the convention by wanting to act. Although the drama takes place in London the “Rose Theatre” is a set built for the movie. The real Rose, where Shakespeare’s earlier plays were first performed, was actually uncovered during building work in Southwark in the late Eighties, and a massive campaign was launched to preserve it. The property developers eventually agreed to preserve the theatre in the basement of the new building. The Rose Theatre site is now operated by the Exhibitions Department of Shakespeare’s Globe who offer tours of the site with their guides.

Elephant Man Elephant Man (1980)
Based on the true story of Joseph Merrick, played by John Hurt (once a passenger of mine), a 19th-century Englishman afflicted with a disfiguring congenital disease. The film captures our idea of Victorian East London; monochrome, foggy and extreme poverty. Filmed at the old Eastern Hospital on Homerton Row, Lower Clapton which has now been replaced by the spanking new hospital. The Eastern stood in for the “London Hospital” on Whitechapel Road where Merrick ended his days.

Other films with London places in their title:

Balham Gateway to the South (1971)
Les Bicyclettes de Belsize (1968)
A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square (1979)
The Bermondsey Kid (1933)
Imelda Marcos of Bethnal Green (2004)
The Britannia Billingsgate (1933)
The Blackheath Poisonings (1992)
Tilly of Bloomsbury (1921)
Bond Street (1948)
84 Charing Cross Road (1987)
Chelsea Girls with Andy Warhol (1976)
Joe Brown at Clapham (1965)
The Courtneys of Curzon Street (1947)
Deptford Graffiti (1991)
The Girl from Downing Street (1918)
Duchess of Duke Street (1976)
East End Hustle (1976)
Greek Street (1930)
Greenwich Mean Time (1999)
The Lonely Lady from Grosvenor Square (1922)
Half Moon Street (1986)
The Foxes of Harrow (1945)
The Monster of Highgate Ponds (1961)
Hyde Park Corner (1935)
No. 5 John Street (1922)
The Kensington Mystery (1924)
The Lambeth Walk (1939)
It Happened in Leicester Square (1949)
A Murder in Limehouse (1919)
East of Ludgate Hill (1937)
Murder in Mayfair (1942)
A Park Lane Scandal (1915)
Die Ballade von Peckham Rye (1966)
Piccadilly Playtime (1936)
Passport to Pimlico (1949)
Fly a Flag for Poplar (1974)
Horace of Putney (1923)
The Duchess of Seven Dials (1920)
Siege of Sidney Street (1960)
Emmanuelle in Soho (1981)
Soap Opera in Stockwell (1973)
The Stratford Adventure (1954)
Victoria (1995)
Waterloo Road (1945)
Mr Palfrey of Westminster (1984)
The Black Sheep of Whitehall (1941)
The Wimbledon Poisoner (1994)
Barretts of Wimpole Street (1956)

Though these images may subject to copyright, the author of CabbieBlog believes they may be used on this post because: they’re a low resolution copy of a film poster; it doesn’t limit the copyright owner’s rights to sell the film in any way, in fact, it may encourage sales; because of the low resolution, copies could not be used to make illegal copies of the image; the image itself could be a subject of discussion in the article; and the image is significant because it was used to promoted a notable film. For further clarification click this link.

Drivel to go

I nearly uttered the phrase beloved by Americans, and consciously I had to stop it forming on my lips;”“latte to go please”, from the assistant (or should that be barista) in Starbucks the other day.

Located opposite the Globe Theatre, with good service, clean toilets (unless the English language students haven’t been there first) and boasting one of the best views in London from its ‘al fresco’ tables, there I’ve said more drivel.

[A]ll the time these inane phrases are replacing perfectly adequate English. One you’ve heard and seen them enough they get into your brain circuits, just like songs they’re called ‘ear worms’, and remain in your memory and are impossible to remove.

I know our greatest gift to humanity is English and that its strength is it being an open language adapting itself to incorporate foreign words, but do we have to have these inane sayings?

I swear that if I reply to a group of American tourists with “Have a nice day”, I’ll commit Hari-Kari, God there it is again, another foreign phrase.

Or if I’m addressed by a passenger as “drive”, I’ll lose my cool, what am I, the tarmac connecting my garage with the road?

And if that’s not bad enough, when I listen to the bastion of the England language, the BBC it refers to measures as ‘litres’ or ‘metres’, leaving the rest of us to make a mental calculation into English equivalents.

When driving around London, and my passenger needs extra help do I ‘go the extra mile’ for him announcing “no worries, mate”? Note he is my passenger not my ‘fare’, for that’s what I charge.

Well, I’m off to grab a sandwich at Prêt a Manger, Catch you later!

Boys from the Blackstuff

I think that I’m in the wrong game, for according to the trade body for road menders, the average cost of filling in a pothole in London is £71, those guys that you see out in all weathers drive Porches when not behind the wheel of a tarmac truck; No I don’t believe it either.

The Asphalt Industry Alliance, who publish the racy magazine title, yes you’ve guessed it Asphalt Now claim that’s the cost for each pothole which has to be filled, with an estimated 1.6 million of them in England and Wales they extrapolate a total cost will be equal to the Gross Domestic Product of a small African state to get our roads back into the 21st Century and has written to the Department of Transport seeking £100 million of emergency funding.

Unless you drive a very robust off-road vehicle, negotiating the speed humps and potholes in London compares with a skiing slalom, worthy of the winter Olympics.

The worst icy conditions for 30 years have increased the condition known as ‘freeze thaw’. As soon as water gets inside a road surface and then freezes, it expands, thus widening the crack. When the ice melts, even more water seeps inside the crack and the problem worsens during the next freeze. When the crack is wide enough, the surface collapses and you have a pothole. Record lows in temperature mean record numbers of potholes.

And why does water get beneath the surface? Aside from old age, the most frequent cause is road works, usually caused by the utility companies, who it is estimated perform two million ‘utility openings’ on our roads each year For however well a road is mended, its old and new surfaces will have inconsistencies. Experts say that by opening up a road just once, you can reduce the life of a road by up to 60 per cent.

But here is an interest thing, have you noticed that speed humps are never affected by this phenomenon?

If the councils had spent as much money and loving care on the road surface these past 25 years as they have on ‘traffic calming measures’ we may now not have a pothole every 120 yards that is estimated to be the case on London’s roads. The best solution is to resurface all roads on a regular basis, unfortunately for London a fresh topping is applied on average every 37 years.

Unfortunately having roads akin to Zimbabwe is not just an inconvenience to CabbieBlog, these holes are deadly, indeed a friend’s father died when his motor bike’s front wheel hit a pothole catapulting him headfirst into a lamppost. The local council belatedly rectified that particular hole within hours.

The cyclist’s organisation CTC logs reported potholes on its website, and unbelievably the number in one year has rocketed from 699 to 3,508.

London depends on its visitors, so we don’t want them to go the same way as Dr Foster in the children’s rhyme:

‘Dr Foster went to Gloucester in a shower of rain,
He stepped in a puddle right up to his middle and never went there again.’

A bridge [repair] too far

“Sorry Gov’nor, I’m not going south of the River” could be a cabbie’s response you will hear more frequently in the future, but blame the Highways Agency/TfL not us, for perversely they seem to be trying to divide London as never before since Roman times. Consider this, if you want to cross the Thames by road there are 11 bridges, 2 tunnels and a ferry crossing to choose from, you would have thought that was adequate.

Boris has already said that he is cancelling the building of the East London Thames crossing, presumably to free up more money for bike hire, and now we find ourselves in the position of having but one unobstructed bridge to cross the Thames.

So indulge me if you will, while I list the possible River Thames crossing points in central London:

Woolwich Free Ferry
Opened in 1889 and was the first successful attempt to cross the Thames for eastern districts. Existing boats started operating in 1963. This was probably the last time both boats worked; usually one is now out of action.

Blackwall Tunnel
The northbound tunnel was built in 1891-7 and was only the second tunnel to be completed under the Thames. The northbound tunnel will be closed from 9pm to 5am on Sunday to Friday, with traffic diverted to the southbound tunnel and southbound traffic forced to go elsewhere.

Rotherhithe Tunnel
This narrow tunnel is only suitable for a car was built in 1904-8. The top of the tunnel is 48 feet below the high water mark to allow ships to pass overhead. The tunnel is closed one or two nights a week for maintenance.

Tower Bridge
The first stone was laid by the Prince of Wales in 1881 after which its architect, Sir Horace Jones promptly died; it was then finished with detailing changed from original design in 1894. It is in fact a steel frame clothed in stone in order to support the great weight of the bascules. The bridge is currently being painted in patriotic colours for the 2012 Olympics with temporary traffic lights.

London Bridge
Positioned approximately on the site where the original Roman crossing stood. The current incumbent was completed in 1972 and replaced the elegant Georgian bridge which ended up at Lake Havasu City, Arizona. Extensive road works at the southern approach mean that all traffic going to Elephant and Castle is wasting it time using bridge.

Southwark Bridge
The current bridge was opened in 1921 replacing the original cast iron bridge, which was in its day the largest ever Cast Iron Bridge built in the world. The iron manufacturer went bankrupt in the process. After just completing the cycle lane (see Diary 31 July 2009), this was promptly dug up before the cement was dry and remains so to this day with roadworks and no northbound cycle lane.

Blackfriars Bridge
Opened by Queen Victoria in 1869 the same day she cut the ribbon for Holborn Viaduct. So unpopular was she at the time, while travelling along the Strand that day she was hissed at, she must have been exhausted after all that effort. Extensive road works and diversions due to new railway station being built across the river alongside the bridge.

Waterloo Bridge
Londoner’s favourite bridge for it affords one of the finest views of London at its centre point, was built during the last war mainly by women. A complete no go area, with road works and the Strand Underpass closed all year.

Westminster Bridge
Charles Barry (of Houses of Parliament fame) was architectural consultant when this bridge was being built in 1854-62; its 84ft between the parapets was exceptional for the time. After the renovation of this bridge, which seems to have been on-going since the old King died, has now been completed, and remarkably this bridge is now fully open.

Lambeth Bridge
Originally a horse-ferry operated here; hence the approach road goes by the name of Horseferry Road. Oliver Cromwell’s coach and horse sank on the horse ferry in 1656. The bridge was built in 1929-32 and it is painted red to denote that it is at the House of Lords end of  Parliament with their red benches, Westminster Bridge is painted green reflecting the green leather of the House of Commons leather benches at the opposite end of The Palace of Westminster. This little bridge of single 2-way traffic will have to accommodate those motorists unable to cross alternative means.

Vauxhall Bridge
This uninspired structure replaced the original bridge which was the first cast iron bridge to cross the Thames. Built in 1895-1906 the only redeeming feature is of the bronze figures on its piers depicting Pottery, Engineering, Architecture and Agriculture upstream and Science, Fine Arts, Local Government and Education downstream, view them by peering cautiously over the parapet. It remains the only major bridge in London fully open.

Chelsea Bridge
When the previous bridge was being built many human bones and Roman weapons were found while digging the foundations. The current suspension bridge was opened in 1934. How long will this pretty bridge be able to take the strain before it too has to have restoration work?

140px-Albert_Bridge_tollhouse Albert Bridge
This the most elegant and fanciful of all London’s bridges, was started in 1864 then abandoned for six years while the Government dithered about the route the Thames Embankment would take. It was finally opened in 1873. The architect Rowland Mason Ordish designed it as a rigid suspension bridge to his own patent design, but it had to be strengthened by Sir Joseph Bazalgette in 1884 when he was building the Embankment. After the Second World War the London County Council wanted to pull it down but the whole of Chelsea, led by Sir John Betjeman protested vigorously, and it was reprieved. The bridge remains as fragile as it looks, and was only open to light traffic, notices still famously demand that all troops must break step when marching over it. Two small tollbooths were built at either end by the Albert Bridge Company. The bridge is now closed for 18 months while a complete refurbishment takes place.

Battersea Bridge
Replacing an earlier wooden bridge depicted by the artist Whistler this structure designed again by Bazalgette, the engineer who also designed London’s sewer system (did that man ever sleep?) was built between 1886-90. Road works scheduled to last until October.

I’m not going to continue up river it’s just too depressing, I’ll just say that Hammersmith Bridge is also closed at weekends.