Riding roughshod

Redolent of a gentler age and conjuring up images of elderly Edwardians wearing tweed knickerbockers riding sit-up-and-beg bicycles might seem the perfect mode of transport around London.

With endorsements from our Mayor, although the sight of him precariously perched on his own bike, might give you cause to question his rationale.

[S]eeing the personable Bradley Wiggins and the tearful Victoria Pendleton now appearing on BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing, you would think that journeying around our Capital was the perfect mode of transport undertaken by the most amenable of fellows.

All the publicity generated from City Hall would seem to endorse that notion and has encouraged an astonishing number to commute daily by bike. On a weekday evening the Clapham Road bus lane is full of cyclists, prohibiting its use by the buses.

All well and good if proper provision had been made for the tsunami of two wheels enveloping our streets. Alas cyclists have become more vulnerable than ever.

A recent report by The Department of Transport has found that cyclist casualties rose by 10 per cent from 3,775 to 4,160 in the comparable first three months of this year, and cyclists incurring fatal or serious injuries rose by 13 per cent compared with the same period last year.

Accidents involving cycles and motor vehicles statistically blame seems to be split 50:50 with half of accidents caused by cyclists, and considering how vulnerable you are now pedalling alone London’s crowded streets only 1 in a 100 bother to go on a training awareness course.

Local authorities have given scant attention to designing safe traffic free lanes for two-wheels; usually painting the road blue seems to be the solution as if the colour was a cloak of safety, while in fact many cycle lanes are shared legally by motorists.

When the authorities have created safe cycle pathways many users ignore them. In Bloomsbury enormous effort has been given to provide bike lanes only to be shunned by foolhardy cyclists.

Road users, it seems to me, cannot be expected to behave responsibly. All bikes should be required to be licensed and insured for 3rd party risks, with an identifying plate.

Any child on a bike or seated in one of those daft trailers should be required by law to wear a helmet.

Authorities should be mandated to provide safe bike lanes – Clapham Road for example could easily be provided with one such lane.

Fines should be imposed for motorists encroaching bike lanes, and more importantly, cyclists penalised if they refuse to use one if one is available.

Making history

CaptureThis week three hundred and sixty-five years ago a series of debates took place in what was then the village Putney in the county of Surrey, Putney now has been subsumed into London.

After seizing the City of London from Presbyterian opponents in August 1647, the New Model Army had set up its headquarters at Putney. The year before in 1646 John Lilburne, John Wildman, Richard Overton and William Walwyn formed a new political party called the Levellers, which sought to give more power to the people. The debates to introduce those rights began at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, by the river Thames near Putney Bridge at what was then the village of Putney.

[F]rom the 28th October to 9th November 1647, soldiers and officers of Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army, including civilian representation, held discussions on the constitution and future of England.

Should they continue to negotiate a settlement with the defeated King Charles I?

Should there even be a King or Lords or an abolition of the monarchy and the House of Lords?

Should the people have the civil right to vote or should it be limited to property-holders? Some wanted a constitution based upon manhood suffrage (“one man, one vote”).

Should there be bi-annual Parliaments and a reorganisation of parliamentary constituencies?

Should complete religious freedom be allowed?

Could an end to the censorship of books and newspapers be implemented?

Should man have the right of trial by jury?

Could they end taxation of people earning less than £30 a year and introduce a maximum interest rate of 6 per cent?

Would these democratic changes lead to anarchy?

This historic event saw ordinary soldiers take on their generals to argue for greater democracy and provided a platform for ‘common people’ to make their voices heard.

The Levellers started publishing their own newspaper, The Moderate. They also organised meetings where they persuaded people to sign a Petition supporting their policies. These debates, forced by the Levellers, paved the way for many of the civil liberties we value today.

The Guardian national newspaper ran a reader’s competition to unearth which neglected event in Britain’s radical past most deserved a proper monument. St. Mary’s Church Putney, the site of the Putney Debates was the worthy winner.

End of the road

They were once described in Parliament by Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli as “Hansom cab are the gondolas of London”.

In a recent poll by Hotels.com based on responses from 1,600 travellers found that passengers were more than twice as likely to ‘become amorous’ in a black cab, with 26 per cent of global travellers having kissed in the back seat.

[T]he poll which put London cabbies ahead of all other cities’ cabs, passengers admitted to feeling so safe that 56 per cent had nodded off in the back seat. But this commodious form of transport more akin to gliding through London’s streets with the air of a liveried gentleman is threatened with its very survival.

The symbol of quiet dependability and polished tradition is under threat as Manganese Bronze, the company that has made the iconic cab since 1947 but has not made a profit since 2007 has now been put into administration.

The black cab’s demise will come as little surprise to its owners. The FX4 which first appeared on London’s streets some six decades ago was a beautifully engineered vehicle and a quantum leap in comfort and reliability from the other vehicles plying for hire on London’s streets. Its successor, the Fairway, which went some way to resolving the issue of the FX4’s brakes which seemed to have a mind of their own, is now to be withdrawn from London’s streets at the behest of Transport for London.

Beset with reliability issues, the recent incarnations by Manganese Bronze, the FX1, 2 and 4 have been prone to leaks (don’t ever leave anything not waterproof in the boot), spontaneous combustion and most recently steering problems. Seemingly cobbled together from parts made by other manufacturers, driving one seems to take one back to the early 1970s when British cars were synonymous with shoddy workmanship.

There has always been something pleasingly dignified about a bespoke vehicle for London rather than using vehicles which can be bought at a local car showroom. With ample headroom and legroom it has none of the scrunch and squeeze of a regular automobile, or looking like a converted van by a quality German manufacturer.

But it looks that unless something appears at the 11th hour the gondolas of London are doomed to be replaced with the ubiquitous black vans manufactured in Germany or Japan.

A Cabbie’s view of London

As any artist, writer or photographer will tell you, professionally they will observe the world around them in ways that others can take for granted.

It is that same attention to detail that’s needed when one undertakes “The Knowledge”, the qualification required to become a London cabbie; every street, club, bar, church, hotel and even blue plaque must be committed to memory.

[I]n pursuit all these facets of London the Knowledge student discovers that there is more to London than is apparent at first sight. Just like a writer they stop looking at the features of London in isolation and try to put them into some context linking them together and discovering their relation to London’s history and its people.

The Knowledge was introduced in 1851 after complaints by visitors to the Great Exhibition that cabbies didn’t know where they were going, now after 160 years we are regarded as the world’s finest taxi service. But our pedigree goes back even further; London was the first city in the world to have a licensed taxi trade and the licensing can be blamed on a little known English playwright called William Shakespeare, his productions were so popular that all the carriages that arrived to pick up and drop off the theatre-going public would cause a “stop” – in modern day parlance a traffic jam; and just to show that red tape is not a modern phenomenon, it took the authorities about 40 years after Shakespeare’s death to introduce licensing – on 24th June 1654 the City of London authorised the use of 200 licenses for Hackney coachmen.

With such a long history it is hardly surprising that  anachronisms abound in the cab trade: the modern cab has a high roof so that gentlemen wearing a top hat may leave them on when travelling to Ascot; while a cabbie is required to carry sufficient hard food for his horse’s midday meal this is now interpreted as having a boot large enough to take a bale of hay; and to show some consideration to the poor old cabbie in a time of need, he may urinate over the rear nearside wheel if a police constable is in attendance to protect his modesty by shielding him with a police cape; but should he wish to stop at a Cabbies’ Green Shelter he may eat and drink tea but political discussion is forbidden by the philanthropists who originally donated the shelters.

While studying the Knowledge a student discovers that some streets in the City: Milk Street, Poultry, Goldsmith Street, Ironmonger Lane are named after the goods once sold there; or Old Jewry was an area set aside for Jewish money lenders. On the Knowledge when given London Stone to locate in Cannon Street a little research suggests that London’s prosperity for many years was thought to depend on the Stone’s safekeeping and that the Romans could have used this limestone block as the point in which to measure all distances from Londinium.

Above all else the words of Dr. Samuel Johnson should be the mantra for any prospective Knowledge student:

Sir, if you wish to have a just notion of the magnitude of this city, you must not be satisfied with seeing its great streets and squares, but must survey the innumerable little lanes and courts. It is not in the showy evolutions of buildings, but in the multiplicity of human habitations which are crowded together, that the wonderful immensity of London consists.

Johnson was right, the city isn’t just a collection of buildings, roads, lanes and courts; its magic is in Londoner’s belief that this complicated friend can fulfil the dreams and aspirations of those residing within its boundaries.

It is this belief that has given London its longevity as the world’s premier city, the result of generations of these resourceful, hard working individuals coming together to improve their lives and in so doing adding another strata of history, business and culture to this incredible city for future Knowledge students to go out and discover.

King’s Cross Lighthouse

CaptureIts been degenerating since Edison Lighthouse appeared in the charts during the 70s and has lay empty for years, but recently scaffolding has appeared surrounding the building. Could this be the start of the regeneration that this forlorn building has needed for the best part of a quarter of a century?

Sandwiched between two converging roads – Pentonville Road and Gray’s Inn Road – opposite King’s Cross railway station perched on top of a narrow building, sometimes referred to as the flatiron building (it shares a similar footprint to the iconic Manhattan block), stands an architectural folly some people think of as a windmill or lighthouse. It has looked much as it does today since 1884 but its date of building and original purpose are unknown.

[N]ow apparently owned by the splendidly named – The Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company (or just P&O) it has been left to rot in this area of huge regeneration.

There are many explanations for this strange Grade II listed building, which was erected in 1875, but no one seems to be absolutely sure. It has been semi-derelict for many years and always seems to be on the point of being regenerated, or falling down, but never quite getting there.

Used as the location for Harry Palmer’s office in the 1967 film ‘Billion Dollar Brain’, some say it was a clock tower, Victorian helter skelter, or even a camera obscura.

Another explanation, although it has to be said that no other examples have been found, is that when oysters were the cheap and popular fast food of the day, Netten’s Oyster House was marked with a lighthouse – a kind of the McDonalds ‘golden arches’ of their day.

An architectural practice called Richard Griffiths has been charged with redeveloping the area, so it’s already spawned a suitably gentrification-friendly, nom-de-plume, ‘The Regent’s Quarter.’

Let us hope this eccentric and loved building gets the refurbishment that it deserves.