Formerly Of Alley

This little alley close to Charing Cross Station commemorates York House which once occupied a 7-acre site overlooking the river Thames.

Originally owned until the Dissolution in 1536 by the Bishops of Norwich, Henry VIII then passed it on to an old friend the Duke of Suffolk and in 1624 the estate eventually came into the possession of George Villiers, The Duke of Buckingham.

[V]illiers restored the bishop’s old estate and built the magnificent York Watergate which survives marooned in Embankment Gardens.

Villiers was murdered in 1628 by a Puritan fanatic, but the Duke’s wife lived there until she lost the property in the Civil War. Her son, the second Duke, fortuitously fell in love with the daughter of York House’s new owner and on marriage regained his family’s home.

He had a better eye for heiresses than finance, for by 1672 he found himself in hoc up to his neck and sold the house to speculators to redevelop the site. The second Duke of Buckingham secured £30,000 for the house and gardens to repay his debts.

But one stipulation of the sale Buckingham insisted upon was that the developer Nicholas Barbon record literally every sound and syllable of his Grace’s name and title; Buckingham Street; Villiers Street; Duke Street and George Street still remain.

But unfortunately the Burgers of Westminster don’t possess the wit of Nicholas Barbon when he named the streets, for Of Alley has been given the rather prosaic title of York Place.

A footnote: George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham started the first foxhunt in England, The Bilsdale Hunt in 1668 and later started the Sinnington Hunt in 1680. He died from a chill after digging for a fox above Kirkbymoorside. At his death in 1687, the title again became extinct.

Catford’s Camelot



The Excalibur Estate is threatened with demolition, but unlike an Arthurian legend there are no Knights of the Round Table galloping to this fair maiden’s rescue.

[I]n a part of Catford that few cabbies would know, or travel to, against the odds, there is the last surviving estate in London of post-war prefabricated houses (‘prefabs’), some 187 two-bed roomed homes with St. Mark’s a prefabricated church, which were built for bombed out Londoners and given road names such as Pelinore or Mordred by someone in the planning department all those years ago with a liking for Arthurian tales.

After the Second World War 150,000 prefabs were built across Britain. Created to accommodate homeless families with young children, these ‘palaces for the people’ as they were called at the time were synonymous not only of comfort and luxury but also a feeling – not lost on the demobbed armed forces – of freedom. The Excalibur Estate in Catford South East London is still one of Britain’s largest estates of prefabs. Erected in 1946-47 by German and Italian prisoners of war, who were in no hurry to return home to war ravished Europe, these detached houses with their own gardens, bathroom and the luxury of a separate indoor toilet were the solution to the chronic housing stock shortage that existed after the end of the Second World War.

Plonked on top of pre-plumbed concrete slabs, these homes could be built in a day, and were only expected to last between 10 and 15 years, by which time the Brutalist tower block of the 60s were expected to accommodate these once homeless families.

By the Seventies the Brave New World of modernist architecture was starting to crumble, along with some of the buildings. Many people found that they hated living in high-rise blocks, no matter how much the council and social planners told them how lucky they were.

Tower blocks and even whole estates were demolished while the remaining prefabs, and the residents, with their little gardens stayed put. They remained as an uncomfortable reminder to planners that modernisers don’t always have all the answers and homes need to be more than boxes stacked one upon another, when the only way to see the sky is to walk to the local municipal park.

With 12 acres of valuable land the property developers are now showing an unhealthy interest in the Excalibur Estate and are proposing to squeeze 400 new homes onto the plot.

After years of neglect by Lewisham Borough Council, who own all but 29 of them, these houses are deemed unfit for human habitation and in the lingo that only local authorities can dream up “these houses are subject to a Sustainable Community Strategy”, demolition to you and me.

Only six have been granted protection from destruction, but these survivors should prove to be a nice little earner for their owners, filmmakers love them, Only Fools and Horses and BBC’s How We Built Britain have featured them.

The Twentieth Century Society (where were they when Centre Point’s fountains were removed?) wants to preserve as much as possible for students to study the design and the estate’s demography, while the pressure group The Worried Tenant’s Group, just want to live there in peace.

The Excalibur Estate’s prefabs might not be the prettiest of dwellings, nor situated among leafy north London’s liberal elite in Barnsbury, but they are a remaining example of how we built homes ‘Fit for Heroes’.

To God and the Bridge

On the occasional times that I’m persuaded to go Sarf of The River my first thought has to be; which bridge should I use?

Knowledge students are told that because the Thames meanders on its journey through the city, the nearest bridge lies on the shortest route, and without giving it a second thought on who built or maintains that particular crossing we drivers just – well drive across it.

[S]o when reading David Long’s fascinating book Tunnels, Towers & Temples: London’s 100 Strangest Places, I was intrigued to find that five of London’s bridges are administered and financed from a building on the South Bank appropriately named Bridge House.

The first major crossing, London Bridge, was started in 1176, to replace the existing rickety wooden bridge nearby. It was funded from donations ‘to God and the Bridge’ as the church at the time encouraged cross river traffic, indeed the builders one Peter de Colechurch was a priest and head of the Fraternity of the Brethren on London Bridge. One must question the churches’ motive as land on the South Bank was owned by the Bishop of Winchester, who later would benefit from revenues derived from prostitutes who were known as Winchester Geese.

When London Bridge was completed some 33 years later the rental income generated from the shops and houses above its 19 stone arches, along with tolls and fines on making the crossing, and in addition to the numerous bequests, amounted to a sizeable sum.

Its assets enabled the purchase of an area of land around Borough High Street and parts of the riverbank that became known as the Bridge House Estate. The income from these assets enabled the construction of Blackfriars Bridge in 1869, Tower Bridge in 1881 and the purchase of Southwark Bridge. The Trust has now assumed control of the Millennium Bridge, but only after the famous wobble was rectified. The Trust has financed two replacements for London Bridge (1831 and 1972) and two replacements for Southwark Bridge (1819 and 1921).

With an estimated £500 million in its coffers, with a least £35 million added each year, the question needs to be asked; why has Boris Johnson cancelled the proposed East London Crossing?

The construction of a bridge between Beckton and Thamesmead would ease the damaging traffic on Tower Bridge and reduce traffic jams in South East London. And how can it be that in a city the size of London, with its growing East and South East population we have only four crossings downriver from Tower Bridge? Rotherhithe was built for horse and carts, in fact its double bend was designed to prevent horses seeing the light at the end of the tunnel and bolting for it. Blackwall Tunnel needs years of overnight maintenance and Woolwich Free Ferry which opened in 1889 hardly eases traffic congestion at all. The next river crossing is some 30 miles to the east at Dartford River Crossing.

The construction of a new toll bridge might help revive the tradition of a donation which was last made in 1675 of ‘To God and the Bridge’.

I’m incandescent with rage

When the motor car was originally invented it was little more than its predecessor, the horse drawn carriage. The light for this new contraption were acetylene lamps, with just enough light to indicate its presence, travelling at walking pace, slower than most vehicle on the road, this weak light was all that was necessary. The earliest headlamps were fuelled by acetylene or oil and were introduced in the late 1880s.

[A]mong the earliest inventions were the ‘Prest-O-Lite’ acetylene lamps that were popular because the flame was resistant to wind and rain. The first electric headlamps were introduced in 1898 on the Columbia Electric Car from the Electric Vehicle Company of Hartford, Connecticut, but the manufacturers regarded them as superfluous so made them optional extras. Two factors limited the widespread use of electric headlamps: the short life of filaments in the harsh automotive environment, and the difficulty of producing dynamos small enough, yet powerful enough to produce sufficient current.

As cars developed into a shape we would recognise today, and with speeds attaining the dizzy heights of 50mph Thomas Edison’s incandescent light bulbs were necessary for drivers to see and be seen. This lasted until the advent of Ward War II made it necessary for vehicles to take to the road with the barest minimum of illumination but as there were hardly any other vehicles around; the biggest danger was falling down a bomb crater.

From the 1950’s car development has moved on apace, and with it so have vehicles’ headlights. First fog lights were added which, if the manufacturer’s claims were to be believed, would cut a swath through fog with their ethereal yellow beam. A further development was for moving away from the parabolic mirror to a more efficient reflecting shape giving a better and more focussed beam.

For the manufacturers of the prestigious Marques, the humble beam of Edison’s humble bulb was not sufficiently impressive for their discerning (or if you prefer – exhibitionist) customers, and so a brighter light had to be found. As if with perfect timing the HID (high-intensity discharge) Xenon/Bi-Xenon car headlights dropped into their laps at just the time the world was agonizing over global warming. What luck! A high intensity light that shows off the owner’s wealth and his green credentials at the same time. These headlights not only save on the watts, but also light up the streets way better for the driver, but not it has to be said for anyone approaching the vehicle.

Now doctors are becoming aware that the bright and extra headlights are causing stress and many other road users would like to see some action taken to reduce this unnecessary glare. It has been suggested that being confronted with a bright distracting light triggers a fight or flight response, with the result that high blood pressure, stress and blood sugars increase, not to mention the added risk of eye disease.

Unnecessary distracting and blinding lights are a hazard and that you will actually be doing the manufactures a favour by nipping this in the bud soon, as they could be liable for the damage that is resulting from this, to take a blind eye (no pun intended) to this is not only negligent but criminal. The eye is the most sensitive of all our senses; it is easily damaged as well as the most easily distracted. All this extra lighting is causing accidents, not preventing them, many people seem to agree about this issue and I have yet to speak to a single person who was in favour of these lights, although no discussion has yet taken place with a 4×4 driver.

The brightness is made worst as these high intensity lights are fitted on high vehicles whose headlight are at the same height as other driver’s eyes. In addition we now we have a situation that every wannabe boy racer’s car has been installed with these HID lights as well, modifying their current headlights, and driving with HID fog lights to supplement their headlights. All to attain that oh so cool blueish/whitish glow, or to tell their fellow drivers that they’re blind.

The only proper and indeed ethical course of action is to regulate now.

Fare Trade

So the Western Extension Zone Congestion Charge has been abolished and from my cab I say not before time. The City and West End still retains this punitive toll which to enter the zone the charge has been raised considerably higher than inflation by a whopping 25 per cent. The original area covered, the City and West End, has a fairly low number of domestic dwellings, while the Western Extension considerably more homes than businesses are to be found.

[B]ut when the Western Extension Zone came into force residents of Chelsea and Fulham could drive their Chelsea Tractors throughout London by only paying this annual nominal charge. As a consequence the West End has slowly ground to a snail’s pace and all the benefits promised by Ken Livingstone when he bravely introduced the scheme were lost. Buses and cabs had fewer passengers as more people started using their own cars.

Now since Christmas, even with the best endeavours of the utility companies to produce the interminable road works, we seem to be able to drive again through the City unimpeded to the benefit of every professional driver who works in that area. The £50 million of annual revenue that Transport for London are expected to lose will soon so doubt be clawed back from the Citizens of London one way or another, but for me that’s a fair trade off to be able to drive again in London.

The Congestion Charge seems to have had another unexpected benefit; anecdotal evidence suggested by Sebastian Shakespeare, writing in the Evening Standard, has emerged from enforcing the Congestion Charge. He put forward his belief that there was a correlation between lower burglary rates and the introduction of the Congestion Charge in Chelsea and Fulham. Areas of London covered with enforcement cameras have seen a significant decrease in burglary being reported and in the City, where almost every street is covered, crime of this nature is almost non-existent, although some might argue the crooks are working inside the City banks and not outside.

At this rate Boris might get my vote in 2012, even though he has threatened to take my cab off the road due to its age, at least driving around London promises to be a more pleasant experience.