Pedal Power

Today’s the day were gearing up to Boris’ big one, his pet project, that is. Well, it would be his idea if he hadn’t stolen it from Ken Livingstone, who adopted it from Paris mayor Bertrand Delande. Yes, today marks the start of a new revolution in which Boris intends to bring pedal power to London (at a cost of £140 million).

Boris believes the London Cycle Hire Scheme will encourage reluctant pedallers on to two wheels. Already under fire for having the bikes built 3,200 miles away and shipped here from Canada, what will happen to Boris’ credibility if they end up trashed or slung in the Thames?

[T]he bikes are built like tanks, so say the manufacturers claiming the bikes will last more than seven years. Forty-two modifications have been made to the original design to make it more suitable for London’s weather. But one change Boris insisted on was to spray them Tory blue, the question needs to be asked, if Ken Livingstone get back into City Hall, will he have them sprayed red?

They may be indestructible to all but the criminally insane, but will Londoner’s who infrequently ride them have the survival streak necessary on today’s roads. And built with only three gears you’ll need the thighs of Chris Hoy to make it up Highgate Hill.

London seeks to emulate Montreal’s success where demand jumped from 3,000 to 5,000 in just one year. But Montreal is a much smaller city which hasn’t gone down the London route, beloved by yobbos, if you can break it, if you can’t paint it.

So a word to Boris; why have you not got the Oyster Card to work at the docking stations? Most users will be reluctant to use their credit card and get yourself a fishing rod, you might need it for fishing the bikes out of the Thames.

Wood you believe it?

[T]here are not many times in a person’s life when they know precisely what they were doing on a particular day and time; the time you took your wedding vows, birth of one’s children or the moment news reached you of 9/11 are probably the only events most people can accurately pinpoint in their lives.

Millenium Tree Well, I know for a certainty what I was doing at 10.00 am on Saturday 1st January 2000, for while the rest of London were sleeping off the previous night, I was planting a Aesculus hippocastanum seed, or a conker to you and me.

In a rare surge of optimism I went out on a cool overcast day and planted my conker to mark the start of a new millennium. Now thanks to the good offices of my local Tory councillor, my three metre high Millennium Tree has been planted in our local park, and God (and yobbos) willing, will grow and give generations of children pleasure.

I only give this fascinating snapshot of my life because recently I’ve been reading The Great Trees of London by Jenny Landreth, for according to the author there are only 56 trees exceptional for their height, girth, reach, age or rarity, and in what most of us think of as central London there are only nine, so few that I can list them all:

The Brunswick Plane, London planes are estimated to make up around 50 per cent of the capital’s trees, with tough shiny leaves readily washed clean in the rain and bark that is able to renew itself by peeling off in small plates has made it an ideal tree for London’s polluted atmosphere. This beauty, according to the author, has been left free to grow to its full glory, ignoring any health and safety issues regarding low hanging branches.

The Dorchester Plane, a large semi-mature London Plane, planted around the time of the opening of the Dorchester Hotel. Standing in Park Lane it is probably London’s most famous tree as its beautiful form and shape is dramatic when lit up at night.

The Abbey Plane, on 8th July 2005 Dean of Westminster Abbey, Dr Wesley Carr laid a wreath on the memorial to Innocent Victims at the Abbey to remember those who had been killed or injured in the bombings the day before. The wreath contained London Plane leaves from the tree that stands close to Westminster Abbey symbolizing London.

The Embankment Plane, standing at the junction with Horse Guards Avenue, this area has some fine examples of London’s ubiquitous trees and this is the finest example lining this major thoroughfare.

The Cheapside Plane a 25m tall London Plane has stood on the corner of Cheapside and the appropriately named Wood Street for 250 years. Originally within the churchyard of St Peter Cheap, destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666, it stands behind some of the oldest shops in the City. The tree was thought to have survived a direct hit during World War II bombing

The great London plane in Berkeley Square with a known planting date of 1789; in 2008 it was valued at £750,000 making it Britain’s most expensive tree. Despite the popularity given by the song, A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square, this drab square, is redeemed by over 30 enormous plane trees planted at the same time and are among the finest specimens in the whole of London.

An elm on Marylebone High Street [pictured] which survived bombing in World War II (which destroyed the adjacent church and has since been spared the threat of Dutch elm disease, making it the last Elm tree standing in Westminster.

An ash in the graveyard of St Pancras Old Church, reputed to be the oldest church in Britain; King’s Cross was being regenerated in the 1860s, at this time the exhumation of human remains and the removal of tombs was supervised by the architect Blomfield, although he delegated much of this unpleasant task to his young protégé Thomas Hardy. The tree known as “The Hardy Ash” has since grown around the gravestones.

Indian Bean Tree in the yard of St James’s Piccadilly. As a welcome diversion when stuck in the inevitable traffic jam that Piccadilly’s one-way system has become, this tree with its beautiful summer flowers is a relatively uncommon tree species, being brought from America by Mark Catesby in 1726. This tree, one of the oldest of its kind in the country, creates a tranquil setting in St James’s churchyard, particularly when in flower during the summer months. [Since writing this post it would appear that this beautiful tree has been felled]

Great trees have always made London beautiful; they lined the roads, they were planted on the banks of the Thames, they were grown in the gardens of great houses and in the newly created garden squares, so where are they all now; St John’s Wood is no more, are we losing our botanic heritage? Mature trees are supposed to be protected by preservation orders and even the most necessary and responsible pruning requires the display of notices of intent and consent from local planners, but these often useless safeguards are easily ignored.

Trees are beautiful, mysterious, and remind us of our insignificance among the natural wonders of the world; all planning officers should insist that developers plant trees that will grow big, tall and wide in future developments, the 2012 Olympic site should have as its legacy a vast number of mature trees to soften the coldness of it architecture, we for our part this autumn should go about with pockets full of acorns and conkers, to plant trees to make our city more beautiful for our grandchildren.

A Greek proverb that’s worth transplanting into London’s urban landscape vocabulary says:

“A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.”

More information on trees and their contribution to the urban environment can be found on the excellent site Trees for Cities.

I have worms

[I] have got worms. OK I know it’s not the sort of thing about my life that you want to read over your morning bowl of cornflakes, but bear with me on this one, while I relate to you the reason I have the little critters.

Working shift work in London throughout most of my life I’ve come to expect to see a fox or two, but in the last couple of years hardly a night goes by without seeing at least two or three.

Foxes moved into urban areas after the First World War due to a change in people’s lifestyles, quickly urbanising and taking advantage of the food and shelter provided in the relatively large gardens, from compost heaps, bird-tables and garden buildings. Foxes are now accustomed to living near to people and successive generations have spread inwards towards the city centre. There are now more opportunities of food and shelter for foxes in towns and cities than in the surrounding countryside. Fox density in urban areas is related to housing type, semis with large gardens are perfect for foxes but Victorian terraces and modern developments are not so favourable.

There are thought to be 10,000 foxes in London and the animals have been spotted in the choir stalls at St Paul’s cathedral and outside No 10 Downing Street. They live in family groups – a dog fox and vixen producing one litter of about four cubs a year. On average, scavenged food forms nearly 40 per cent of their diet, with a large amount of this deliberately put out to attract them. It is commonly, but wrongly believed that urban foxes feed largely on the contents of dustbins which they have raided – these are more often disturbed by cats and dogs.

The number of urban foxes remains about the same despite approximately 60 per cent of the population dying in a year; nearly half of these deaths are due to car accidents, which rather put pay to the fox hunting debate as a means of restricting their numbers. Although their numbers remain the same they have of late become less desensitised to humans, now almost never running away and becoming so bold as to result in the tragic case from East London where two sisters were bitten by a fox in their bedroom.

Foxed are actually quite small and it is extremely rare for a fox to attack a cat or dog, let alone a human, usually preferring to avoid contact. Foxes’ natural prey includes small birds and mammals and they will eat pet rabbits, guinea pigs or chickens, but if they can scavenge rather than risk being injured when pursuing prey they will.

Now in London everybody seems to throw their uneaten food into the street; rich pickings are to be found for our urban canine friends, and local councils are hardly helping by only collecting rubbish only two times a month and actually encouraging residents to store uneaten food for infrequent disposal. Discarded food will attract rats allowing them to breed in larger numbers, so it’s hardly surprising foxes are on the increase in these boroughs, with a plentiful supply of scraps and rodents to eat.

IMG_0109 We now come to the rather indelicate subject of my worms, for recently for my birthday I received from my daughter a Wiggly Wiggler wormery, now at the risk of coming over all green I have the perfect solution to composting kitchen waste into rich, dark compost, a valuable resource for my garden. Worm-assisted composting is a wholly natural process and using such “lowly organised creatures”, as Charles Darwin described worms and he should know he studied them for 35 years; I have reduced the risk of encouraging foxes and rodents into my garden while providing myself with hours of entertainment discussing my wormery with anybody who will listen.

Not in my backyard

[N]imbyism, even the word sounds, well slightly nerdy, with a vision of a moustached man, clipboard at the ready trying to get your signature on his petition protesting about a local issue.

But to paraphrase Gordon Gekko, Nimbyism is good, Nimbyism empowers you, Nimbyism is hugely valuable, Nimbyism is to be encouraged, for if you don’t look after your own back yard who do you expect to do it for you, the State, local councillors, your neighbour? There may be some martyrdom involved particularly as almost certainly you will be trying to stop a juggernaut of self interest: vain architects; big business; dodgy politicians; or greedy developers; or God help you if you encounter a combination of all four.

To take just two less high profile examples of people power in London, with varying degrees of success, and both curiously involving Camden Council Planners:

Little Green Street Little Green Street off Highgate Road in Kentish Town is one of only a few intact Georgian streets in London. Most of the dozen houses were built in the 1780s, all are Grade ll listed, and have survived the Blitz and more than two hundred years of wear and tear from the generations who have raised their children in this narrow cobbled terrace.

It is the stuff of picture books showing Georgian England, built before America won its independence; the street has been the playground to generations of children with no front yard to play in.

However, in 2008, the residents, users and friends of the street apparently lost an eight year battle to prevent it being used as a truck route to develop a small patch of land, theoretically only accessible down this seven foot wide cobbled lane. It was proposed that a vehicle would pass within inches of the front doors of these homes every three minutes, all day every day for up to four years down this delicate cul-de-sac.

Although, after campaigning by more than 15,000 people and with planning permission lapsing, due to the developers running out of cash, Camden Council are still vacillating about whether the construction work on a gated community to be built at the end of this street, with an underground car park should continue.

Mad, isn’t it? Everyone knows that to risk these houses is daft, but the irony is it is the very greed that motivated the purchase of one of London’s iffier bits of derelict land will probably ensure the street’s continuing peaceful quietness, for the developers paid such a premium for the site making money from the old railway club can’t be done. A moral (or at least a sound bit of buying advice) “Don’t buy anything at auctions unless you’re really sure you are getting a good price for something that you not only want, but can also use”. Don’t pay over the odds for an unremarkable bit of land you can only cheaply get to down a tiny cobbled lane, for example. And more importantly don’t mess around with concerted well organised Nimbys.

As of the end of February 2008 (and after a huge public outcry), the developers’ third attempt at a construction methodology statement was rejected. They appealed and the Planning Inspectorate who decided in August 2008 that it was in the public interest to turn this little green street into a truck route, down a street remember that is just wider than the length of your bed. Since then, relative silence, other than an expensive mortgage on a very poorly thought out idea.

1217050_British_Museum_Closer_view While in the south of the borough in Bloomsbury, the local Camden Civic Society and the Bloomsbury Group have been roundly castigated for questioning the empire building of the British Museum. In newspapers and letters they were told they ought to know what’s good for them and an “improvement” scheme will go ahead. But the local Nimbys did modify what was a badly conceived plan – Richard Rogers’s original proposal would damage the Arched Room, the King Edward VII North Galleries and staircase, the north elevation of Robert Smirke’s Great Court, and obscure views down Malet Street. Openings would have been cut into the original stone walls of the Grade I-listed Great Court for access to the new wing.

The museum is still going to knock holes in the north wall of the Great Court; it’s OK, apparently, because the wall is only a 100 years old. Would they have dreamed of drilling holes in the Rosetta stone to facilitate screwing it to the wall? No, of course not, and they would hardly countenance a similar cavalier approach to even the humblest shard of their precious artefacts but will quite happily disfigure forever the historically important monument that house them. Beats me.

Little Green Street might not have won the war – yet, but their brilliant campaign, that and the Credit Crunch, has protected for the time being this beautiful Georgian Street.

While in Bloomsbury, Lord Rogers’ revised modernisation plans have won the day for the British Museum, but what London gems could his architectural practice destroy in the future if nobody protested?

Grub Street

Grub Street

[T]his is a perfect post for your humble scribe, for the term Grub Street describes the world of impoverished journalists and literary hacks. Originally Grub Street possibly meant a street infested with worms, or more likely named after a man called Grubbe. But since the 17th century is has been used in connection with needy authors and poor journalists. Dr Johnson said it was “much inhabited by writers of small histories, dictionaries and temporary poems”, which seems to sum up CabbieBlog perfectly.

Even though this street was renamed Milton Street in 1830, the world of hack writers is still known as Grub Street. The inhabitants of this now metaphorical place churn out words without any regard for their literary merit. They were often called penny-a-liners. A Grub Street writer is also called a hack writer, which is another London allusion: Hackney in East London, was the place where horses suitable for routine riding or driving were raised. The word hack, in related senses, is a short form of hackney, and now, of course, refers to taxis or Hackney Carriages.

As any writer would tell you, publishing is a long and slow journey, but according to London cabbies it’s only five minutes from Grub Street to Fleet Street. Unfortunately there was much rebuilding in the area following war damage, and since the 1960s the pedestrian seeking to turn into Milton Street from Fore Street is faced with a solid block of buildings. The coffee shops and mean lodgings have long gone, and we will surely not meet Dr Johnson on his late night wanderings. No matter: as long as there are writers in the land, Grub Street lives on.

“To succeed in journalism”, the late Nicholas Tomalin once wrote, “you need three qualities: a rat like cunning, a plausible manner, and a little literary ability . . . There are still some aspects of the Grub Street trade that can be learnt with a little application.”

A lot more information about this long lost street whose name lives on can be found if you have rat like cunning and care to follow this link.