Money to burn

It is arguably Londoner’s favourite industrial building and best viewed when travelling along the road of the rich and famous – Cheyne Walk. There on the opposite bank of the Thames is ‘The Temple of Power’ as it was then dubbed when constructed in the 1930s.

Battersea Power Station, the largest brick built building in Europe – even if it does not have a roof – was constructed in two halves, both identical from the outside and comprising two individual power stations. Battersea A Power Station was built first with Battersea B Power Station to its east constructed later in the 1950s. The two stations were built to an identical design, providing when finished the well known four-chimney layout. The station ceased generating electricity in 1983, but over the past 50 years it has become one of the best known landmarks in London and is Grade II* listed.

[T]wo years ago we had rather hoped, or at least I did, that Real Estate Opportunities had a viable plan to ‘save’ Battersea and develop the site with the mix of retail units and the ubiquitous riverside residential units.

They have gone the same way as other developers with money to burn – at least in 1940 when they literally ran the boilers on bundles of used notes the power station produced electricity and not just hot air.

In the 1980s Alton Towers owner John Broome wanted to turn the building into a giant fun fair, even booking Mrs. Thatcher to cut the ribbon. His dreams went up in smoke selling his £350 investment for £10 million to Taiwanese property tycoons, but their dreams of developing its prime riverside location also went down the Swanee – or the Thames.

BatterseaEven using it for a photo shoot has been eventful. A pink pig tethered to Battersea’s chimneys for Pink Floyd’s album Animals broke its moorings and soared 5,000 feet disrupting air traffic approaching Heathrow, the pig eventually landing in a field in Kent. At King’s Cross the stark beauty of industrial heritage has been recognised by many who argue that an English Heritage listed Victorian gasometer become a centre piece of a new park being constructed. Could we not use Battersea Power Station as a centrepiece of a new park?

The old girl was earned a dignified retirement, not a single day’s production of electricity was lost during the war and at one time the generators were supplying one fifth of London’s power, she has earned her place in the sun.

So instead of the latest wiz-bang idea to make a buck by turning it into a 60,000-seater stadium for Chelsea FC (how can that be with Chelsea on the opposite bank?), let Battersea Power Station be a park, a quiet place for reflection and a chance to remember when we had an Empire and coal was King, while instead of buying France’s power we could actually keep the home fires burning and the lights turned on using electricity produced at Battersea.

London’s top secret tower

[I]f I had written this post 18 years ago it is quite possible that MI5 would want to talk to me. It’s hardly the stuff of John le Carré but from the day it was built until Kate Howie MP, speaking in Parliament on 19th February 1993 spilt the beans by announcing to the public, and I quote:

Hon. Members have given examples of seemingly trivial information that remains officially secret. An example that has not been mentioned, but which is so trivial that it is worth mentioning, is the absence of the British Telecom tower from Ordnance Survey maps. I hope that I am covered by parliamentary privilege
when I reveal that the British Telecom tower does exist and that its address is
60 Cleveland Street, London (Hansard col.632).

The 621 foot high BT Tower was Britain’s most poorly kept secret. Londoners were expected to not notice its presence, in fact for many years it did not appear on any map as its location was protected by the Official Secrets Act, even the taking and storing photographs of the building was forbidden.

In a further secret twist Londoners seem to have been unaware of the changes that have recently been undertaken above their heads as engineers removed the 31 microwave dishes, once used to transmit top secret data across a nationwide network of similar towers. Right up until the 1980s, the microwave network was responsible for transmitting television signals and other data – some of it military. The arrangement comprised of a link of transmitters, stretched across the United Kingdom from north to south; with towers similar to the London GPO erected in Birmingham (at Snow Hill) and Manchester (in Heaton Park).

Being extremely secure, the system was also known by the codename, “Backbone” and, in the event of a nuclear attack, the resilient network would have provided vital communications for the government.

The tower is mostly circular because the designers noted that the only buildings that survived in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were round, with the shape allowing the enormous blast wave to surge round them. But considering the searing heat and 500mph blast wave unleashed by a nuclear weapon, it is doubtful that any buildings (or indeed people) would have been left standing.

The tower was conceived in the 1950s when broadband microwave technology seemed the best way serve the growing communication needs of the nation. It was designed to exchange microwave radio signals with other similar towers in locations such as Birmingham, Bristol and Portsmouth. Built in a yard off an existing telephone exchange, it was quite a neat engineering feat. A borehole survey revealed the hard chalk suitable for supporting foundations was 174 feet down, too far to be practically used. Instead an 88 foot square concrete “raft” was placed some 26 feet below street level, supporting a seven metre tall flat topped concrete pyramid, which in turn supported a hollow concrete shaft that forms the core of the tower. Even in 100mph winds it will not sway more than 7.4 inches. Swaying isn’t good for microwave transmission especially in a nuclear holocaust.

In 1962 the GPO Tower (as it was then known) overtook St. Pauls Cathedral as London’s tallest building, that title was briefly snatched away by the newly constructed Millbank Tower which took less time to build, but was regained when completed. It held that record until 1980 when the NatWest Tower (now renamed Tower 42) rose above the City skyline.

Known formerly as the General Post Office Tower its presence (or at least its purpose) might have remained a secret but for the fact of a restaurant which revolved every 22 minutes on the 34th floor which was operated by the holiday camp king Billy Butin. By 1971 the tower had been visited by over 5 million people, it only closed in 1980 amid security fears after a bomb had exploded in the gent’s toilet one night causing extensive damage which took two years to repair.

In defiance of the prohibitions placed upon acknowledging its presence it has appeared in BBC’s Doctor Who the War Machines which curiously does have a “D” Notice slapped on it as the YouTube clip has now been withdrawn by the BBC. The tower has been a popular backdrop to science fiction films among others V for Vendetta, The Fog, The New Avengers episode Sleeper, The Day of the Triffids and Harry Potter flies over it in a Ford Anglia. But the all time favourite the tower is featured in the most famous scene in The Goodies when it is toppled over by Twinkle the Giant Kitten in the episode Kitten Kong.

London’s secret tower is based upon an original post by Charlie on Cold War London.

Six Degrees of CabbieBlog

I would say in my youth that shaking hands with me made you just three steps from any world leader, for my father would, during his working day, come into contact with members of the Royal Family.

I did not realise it at the time but a social psychologist – Stanley Milgram – had researched what he termed “social capital” which he sent several packages to 160 random people living in Omaha, Nebraska, asking them to forward the package to a friend or acquaintance who they thought would bring the package closer to a set final individual, a stockbroker from Boston, Massachusetts. He found that the very first folder reached the target in just four days and took only two intermediate acquaintances. Overall, Milgram reported that chains varied in length from two to ten intermediate acquaintances, with a median of five intermediate acquaintances between the original sender and the destination recipient. It was enough for him to conclude that with our extended networks it really was a small world.

[H]e discovered that typically there average 5.2 people separating you from anyone in the world. This would later be called “Six Degrees of Separation” taken from the title of a 1993 film based on tangential relationships starring Will Smith.

The definition of this are the “hops” which are the number of jumps from person-to-person needed to reach your target friend and “degrees” record the number of people separating the two parties. Translated this would mean that six degrees of separation would actually be seven hops.

This term has led to a trivia game entitled “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” based on the assumption that any actor in Hollywood can be linked through their film roles. Aficionados of the game give actors each a “Bacon Number”, the late Donald Pleasance is designated a three which translates that only four hops are needed to link him to any actor alive or dead. Christopher Lee of Hammer House of Horror fame is a two, while Rod Steiger is an incredible one. Kevin Bacon at first thought that using his name meant that he would take any role available to him, but it’s only that his name that rolls off the tongue rather satisfyingly. He has taken all this in good part and now fronts a charitable organisation launched in 2007 entitled

This separation has worked well when associated with clusters; it’s the way that man has always conducted his life, it is for this precise reason Milgram’s experiment worked but only if kept within a social circle. In the Hollywood cluster the most jumps entailed by an actor is four, but you would be hard put to link Kevin Bacon with, say, a goat herder in Azerbaijan. That is until now.

If you should get into my cab my passenger list will give you a much wider separation group. While the rise of the social media gives you “followers” and “friends” increasing your circle exponentially. Follow Stephen Fry on Twitter and when I last looked he had three-and-a-half million followers to link with.

Now for reasons best known only to themselves researchers in Italy have looked at Facebook’s 721 million users – which equates to 10 per cent of the world’s population – and concluded that the average distance between two individuals has shrunk to 4.74 hops. This means there are just four people standing between you and that Afghan goat herder.

So this Christmas play Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon at home and should you feel the urge to wish your new found friend in Azerbaijan a seasonal greeting:

Çox xoşbəxt Christmas

How to hail a cab like a local

How to hail a cab like a local . . . and some Seasonal advice for Londoners

You’ve arrived in London having spent weeks planning your itinerary: Tower of London, Buckingham Palace, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre and Madame Tussauds you want to see them all.

But how do you get around the capital? The best way to travel around London is by Tube.

[T]he simple diagrammatic map makes finding your way as easy as joining up the dots by following the coloured lines to your destination. Unfortunately years of neglect have taken its toll on the Tube’s infrastructure, with constant breakdowns and delays.

If you have to interrupt your tube journey (or not start it) you might consider using a bus. We have over 6,000 buses in London; in fact we devote whole traffic jams to their exclusive use. And don’t expect the drivers to give you information, they are trying to manoeuvre a very large vehicle through one of Europe’s most congested cities, they are not your tour manager.

If you have the courage, or possibly feel that life’s not worth living, London offers a free bike hire scheme, be warned though it’s not for the faint hearted. Alternatively your other choice is the iconic London black cab.

A word of caution here. It may look like a cab, it may sound like a cab, but as with many cities rogue taxis proliferate London. A genuine cab has a light marked TAXI on its roof, a FOR HIRE light on the driver’s nearside door and two licence plates one affixed to the rear of the vehicle and another inside the passenger compartment. The driver is also expected to be displaying his badge (a small oval green enamelled medallion). I cannot emphasise this enough, if in doubt walk away. Genuine cabbies will not stop you in the street asking if you “need a cab”.

So you are standing at the kerb, avoid standing at bus stops and pedestrian crossings (they have zigzag markings in the road), we value your custom but with a £120 fine, not that much.

Don’t try to emulate a scene from your favourite black and white film by shouting “TAXI” while simultaneously waving in a frantic fashion; this has the inverse effect on your chances of getting a cab.

If you have enjoyed an evening out tuck in your shirt, don’t try to balance food in one hand while raising the other to attract the cabbies attention and finish the last pint that your mate reluctantly bought you. In New York you aren’t allowed to consume alcohol on the street and you are not going to use my cab as the local hostelry.

Remember lampposts can only hold you vertically whilst you’re leaning on them, let go and you are likely to end up under the wheels of my 2½ tonne cab. They don’t stop like Formula One cars so don’t jump into the road to hail me; it will always end in tears. The last time a London cabbie missed a decent fare America was gaining its independence. When you see a cab approaching with his yellow TAXI roof light on just hold out your hand and look at the driver indicating that you’re in need of a cab and not just scratching your armpit.

London street hail etiquette demands that you converse with the driver before alighting using a slightly differential tone with an upward inflection in your voice in the manner of a question: “Will you take me to . . . ?” It’s as contrived as the Japanese tea ceremony, we are obliged to take you anywhere within 12 miles of Charing Cross by law, but it’s just Old World politeness.

We don’t need the location of major hotels or theatres, by giving the address is a sure fire way of telling us you’re on vacation. It takes four years to become a London cabbie we do know the location of the Ritz, its entrance is a side door in Arlington Street and not Piccadilly.

Don’t expect the cabbies to converse during the journey, it’s your space at the back we should respect your privacy. But if you do want a chat you have the opportunity to increase your appreciation of London.

London’s cabbies are famous for their wide ranging views. You can learn how the politicians of the day are incapable of running the country and that your driver could make a better job of it, or how to bake a Victoria sponge cake.

Seriously London cabbies are proud of their city, use the time on the journey for gaining an extra insight into London. It costs nothing to ask about the sights you are passing. The driver might give you advice on planning your itinerary, and importantly what tourist honey pots you need to avoid.

Don’t become abusive or call the driver a crook by taking “the long way round”. We can all make mistakes and most drivers will adjust the fare accordingly. No amount of shouting or threatening behaviour will get you to where you need to go, if fact no punter has reached his destination in my cab after that kind of altercation.

Well, you’ve reached your destination; the price of the fare is indicated on the meter visible above the driver. But what to tip? Regular users of cabs usually round the payment up to the nearest £1 or £2; approximately 10 per cent is the norm. But if you think the service was exemplary . . .

Next year in London promises to an exceptional time. In May the Mayoral elections come up so will the flamboyant incumbent – Boris – still be in charge? In early June our Queen celebrates her diamond jubilee marking 60 years on the throne. Celebrations include a river pageant and all the pomp and ceremony in which England excels. And in August London hosts the Olympic Games and the Paralympic Games. Tickets are already sold out for the Olympic Games but London is staging the largest cultural event ever to run at the same time.

See you in London next year.

The thin blue phone line

There stands in Grosvenor Square an anachronism from the days when you would see Bobbies on the beat, an age without mobile phones, police walkie-talkies or when very few homes even had a landline telephone.

Despite the 24-hour armed police presence this blue police call box just north-east from the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square is available for public use. The door has not been sealed and behind it is a relatively modern telephone. Apparently, because of its sensitive location outside the US embassy, the post is still operational; just try using it if you dare. It still has its original notice stating that advice and assistance is obtainable immediately should you so need it. English Heritage have regarded its importance in the fabric of our lives highly enough to give it Grade II listing.

[F]irst introduced into Britain in the 1920s these police boxes were used by constables to keep in touch with the police station, they served to decentralise the police force allowing the officer to stay out without the necessity of returning to base for orders.

In 1929 the larger well-known police box made famous thanks to the BBC’s Doctor Who was introduced made of concrete at a cost of £43 each and by 1937 London had around 700 boxes installed. In true Tardis tradition there really was more to its inside than was apparent from the outside: phone, desk, chair, log book, first aid kit, fire extinguisher, electric heater and no doubt a kettle to make that well deserved cuppa. In an emergency they could be used as a prison for apprehending suspects and during World War II using a siren installed doubled up as an air raid warning system.

Very few police boxes have survived in London, apart from at Grosvenor Square they are located on the Victoria Embankment (opposite Middle Temple Lane), at the corner of Queen Victoria and Friday Street, on Walbrook (opposite Bucklersbury), in Guildhall Yard, outside St. Botolph Church in Aldgate, outside Liverpool Street Station, on Aldersgate Street near Little Britain, and on Piccadilly Circus at the junction with Piccadilly.

Most will only associate the police call box from the BBC’s Doctor Who programmes. The original Tardis (an acronym for Time, And Relative Dimensions In Space) used in the pilot episode had been constructed in the late 1950s for the long running series Dixon of Dock Green, which ran from 1955 to 1976 and became the longest running police drama to appear on television.

The pilot for Doctor Who was filmed at in London at the BBC’s Lime Grove Studios, but the box proved difficult to transport in the studio’s lift. When the first series was commissioned new Tardis was constructed 8 inches shorter from wood painted with the addition of Artex to simulate concrete. The other modification was that the doors crucially opened inwards.

The word Tardis became an official word in the English language with an entry in the 2002 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.

In 1996, a brand new police box appeared on Earl’s Court Road, outside the tube station. In keeping with the Metropolitan Police’s obsession with surveillance, it was fitted with a CCTV camera, allegedly to scare off prank callers. Unveiled as part of the Metropolitan Police’s plans to reintroduce police boxes to the streets of London, plans to erect similar boxes throughout London have now been abandoned.

On the 1st July 1996 with the return of Doctor Who to the small screen the BBC filed an application to register the “Police Public Call Box” in relation to games, toys and playthings . . . the Metropolitan Police filed an opposition and the more cynical might construe that this new police box outside Earls Court as the Metropolitan Police asserting their right to the police box design.

All you need to know – and a lot more besides – about the Police Telephone Box can be found on Immanuel Burton and Jason Shron’s excellent website Police Boxes.