A blinking nuisance

It’s that time of year when the tourists start migrating to London. Thousands of them descend on the streets forming long conga-lines each one of them intent on following the leader, but unlike native Londoners they tend to stick rigidly to the designated crossing points in the road. Those crossing points are the fault of the gloriously named Leslie Hore-Belisha (1st Baron Hore-Belisha, of Devonport in the County of Devon).

[W]ho in 1934 as Transport Minister was appalled by the statistics that in one year 7,343 died and 231,603 were injured on Britain’s roads.

Soon after being appointed to the post he nearly became a statistic as he used a pedestrian crossing. His brush with death came as he was crossing Camden High Street when a sports car shot up – or was that down? It was two-way then – the street narrowly missing the good Baron. This is not different from today’s Camden High Street except nowadays you have a choice in which car to select to hit you, in 1934 probably only two cars an hour drove up the street.

At the time every vehicle was subject to mandatory speed limits except perversely motor cars, so after his Camden High Street incident he introduced the 30mph speed limit in built up areas to all vehicles. Many said that it was the removal of ‘an Englishman’s freedom of the Highway’ but undeterred he also brought in law mandatory driving tests.

His most visible legacy – which actually is the subject of this post – was the pedestrian crossing with their familiar black and white striped poles surmounted by an orange flashing light, nicknamed at the time ‘Belisha Beacons’, the familiar zebra stripes on the road were only introduced on 31st October 1951.

The most famous of these zebra crossings is at Abbey Road made famous by The Beatles which has been given heritage listing ignoring the fact that the crossing has been moved from its original location. Tourists daily risk life and limb being photographed as frustrated drivers push their way across as the tourists stand in the middle having their picture taken.

Nearly 80 years have passed since Belisha’s blinking invention was introduced and apart from a zebra we have had a few pelican crossings, the occasional panda and now at Oxford Circus one straight from Tokyo the Shibuya crossing with its countdown timers.

Most crossings are still the originals with the stream of tourists patiently holding up traffic as they hesitantly negotiate the West End’s roads. You know they are from out of Town as the locals obstinately refuse to cross at the designated points choosing to jay walk instead.

Two years ago a fellow cabbie put out a question. What are London’s worst crossings? Despite the advances in traffic control the top five – as if they were listed heritage sites – remain as Hore-Belisha would recognise.

5th – Abbey Road. I know I’ve already mentioned this one, but what I can’t understand is why people who weren’t even born when that ‘iconic’ shot was taken want to pose on a crossing when Sir Paul McCartney who lives nearby could be walking past with a bemused look on his face. I often see idiots taking their photos on the crossing further north by Abercorn Place.

4th – St Paul’s Churchyard. Everybody around here seems so terribly polite. But with the exaggerated bonhomie there is always a tourist running across at the last minute. The view of St. Paul’s west door is great though.

3rd – Bow/Russell Street. Situated right by the Royal Opera House and a junction where cabs are constantly trying to turn into the main flow of traffic. The tourists seem to queue up here to jaywalk.

2nd – Endell/Bow Street/Long Acre. Within a few hundred yards of our 3rd placed entry. This one is on the turn of the road that’s littered with rickshaws. It is crying out to be converted into one of those new fanged pelican or is that panda crossings?

1st – Great Marlborough Street. Since the ‘dirty dozen’ was closed off most of Soho has just become a car park. Cabbies turn down Berwick Street and right into Great Marlborough Street to miss the nightmare of the Shibuya diagonal crossing at Oxford Circus. You are then confronted with herds of young women who are leaving the perfume department at Liberty’s and others queuing to get in.

Statues’ anatomy-2

Achilles’ Penis


Achilles Statue in Hyde Park was cast in 1822 from cannons taken in the Peninsular War and at Waterloo and presented by ‘The Women of England’ as a tribute to Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington. It was the very first statue of a naked man on public display in London. Originally anatomically correct, if you get my drift, but after the aforementioned women realised that all parts of a man’s anatomy scale up in size proportionately, a fig leaf was added later to save blushes. The addition has been chipped off twice – in 1870 and 1961, probably to see what’s underneath. If you look closely at the image you can just see the join.

Haig’s Urinating Horse


Douglas, 1st Earl Hag who commanded the British forces in 1915 during the first world war, but has since been denigrated for his mismanagement of the battle of Passchendale, his critics were quick to point out that the hind legs of his horse suggest not propulsion but urinating.

Prospero’s bum


On the first floor directly over the entrance with its statute of Prospero and Ariel is the council chamber, the statute depicting from Shakespeare’s Tempest, Prospero sending Ariel, the spirit of the air, symbolises the future of broadcasting to the world. Eric Gill its sculptor it would seem had other ideas. He insisted on carving the statute in situ. Standing on scaffolding above the entrance, female employees on arriving would be greeted by the unwelcome sight of London’s first ‘builder’s bum’ for Gill wore a monk’s habit with nothing underneath. When completed Prospero was found to have a girl’s face carved upon his bottom, the image facing the council chamber. As for Ariel being sent out into the world, he would appear rather well endowed for that, for such a young child.

King William III’s mole


Equine statutes litter London’s landscape, but one in St. James’s Square illustrates just how dangerous riding horses can be: this statute of King William III was erected in 1806 and there is something strange about it. A small molehill lies at the feet of Sorrel, the King’s horse. What is the molehill for? The answer is that William is said to have died of pneumonia, a complication from a broken collarbone, resulting from a fall off his horse. Because his horse had stumbled into a mole’s burrow. William was the Protestant King brought to England from Holland to replace the last Catholic: King James. James’s supporters and all Jacobites then and now still toast “the little gentleman in the black velvet waistcoat”. The mole that killed a king. The saying “Dutch Courage” also comes from William III’s reign.

Statues’ anatomy-1

The posing artist

Situated next to the Blue Fin Building on Bankside is what looks at first glance to be a simple bronze statue standing on a stone plinth. However, the mischievous figure will observe the world around him and react to passers-by by mimicking poses they strike in front of him. The playful sculpture will even create his own poses if left alone. The work entitled Monument to the Unknown Artist is the work of Greyworld who have produced many automatomic installations one of their most famous works is The Source, a 32 metre installation seen daily on TV as it opens the London Stock Exchange’s trading day every morning.

Albert’s little number


A huge Gothic edifice erected to the memory of Prince Albert, the consort of Queen Victoria, is decorated with sculptures which reveal an extraordinary but quite unintentional set of coincidences. There are 61 human figures (Albert died in 1861); there are 19 men (Albert was born in 1819); there are 42 women (Albert died at age 42); and there are 9 animals (Albert had 9 children).

Handel’s ear


The statue of Handel in Westminster Abbey has someone else’s ear. The sculptor, Louis Francois Roubillac, thought that Handel’s ear, though without doubt musical, was rather ugly. So he used as a model the ear of a certain Miss Rich, which, though not at all musical, was sculpturally perfect.

Fertility’s finger


In the gardens of Smithfield stands the statue of a young woman wearing a solid gold wedding ring. The ring was found by the market superintendent in 1924, and when no one claimed it, he had it soldered onto her finger, because as she had been standing there, supposed to represent fertility since 1873, he thought it was high time she got married.

The London Grill: Oliver O’Brien

We challenge our contributor to reply to ten devilishly probing questions about their London and we don’t take “Sorry Gov” for an answer. Everyone sitting in the hot seat will face the same questions that range from their favourite way to spend a day out in the capital to their most hated building on London’s skyline to find out just what Londoners really think about their city. The questions might be the same but the answers vary wildly.

Oliver O'Brien

[O]liver O’Brien is a research associate and software developer at University College London’s Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis. He specialises in visualising geographical data. He is always on the look out for new ways of visualising London’s data, population and movements, and co-authors the Mapping London blog. He recently created CityDashboard, a live view of London’s information. He is currently working on developing a unified model for transport mobility for a number of European cities, a collaborative project across a number of EU universities called EUNOIA. In his spare time he competes in orienteering, and organises the London City Race.

What’s your secret London tip?

Always try and leave London, at least once a month. Even if it’s only for a walk in the Chilterns or a visit to Arundel. Or, if you don’t manage to leave the city, go to Richmond Park and walk right into the middle of the park.

What’s your secret London place?

Wilton’s Music Hall. It has a wonderful ambience, which is enhanced by its dilapidated state. It’s also properly hidden away – you have to know it’s there, you don’t just stumble upon it. A close second would be Trinity Buoy Wharf. It is similarly hard to get to, and the view is unexpected and superb.

What’s your biggest gripe about London?

We don’t build proper cycle infrastructure in London. It’s always just squeezed in, if there’s space. Cycle lanes just stop suddenly, in the road. It’s immensely frustrating to visit other large, historic European cities and, in almost every case, discover that their cycle infrastructure is streets ahead of our own.

What’s your favourite building?

The Heron Tower on Bishopsgate. It’s built the way skyscrapers should be – it has clean lines and goes straight up. Its look at night is enhanced by attractive lighting, and it has a bar at the top with a great view.

What’s your most hated building?

The Shard, particularly at night when the top floors are (over)lit up and it looks like a messy beacon. It’s just too big for the area – especially as it stands apart from the main clusters of skyscrapers.

What’s the best view in London?

The view from the veranda on the river-side of the Angel pub in Bermondsey. Tower Bridge on your left, Canary Wharf on your right.

What’s your personal London landmark?

The Regent’s Canal. I’ve crossed it almost every day for the last 10 years.

What’s London’s best film, book or documentary?

It was great to see so much of London in the most recent Bond film, Skyfall.

What’s your favourite bar, pub or restaurant?

I like Fredericks Restaurant, in Camden Passage, Angel. It feels like a central London restaurant but it’s in a much more chilled out part of town.

How would you spend your ideal day off in London?

I like visiting bits of London that I have never been to before. Having been here a while now, and therefore “done” most of the centre, I would probably draw a big circle on a map of London, then spend the day following it around, aiming to do a lap of the city and visit local landmarks that I would otherwise never see.

This ‘Grill’ was first posted on the Radio Taxis blog.

Where are the Centre Point fountains?

There cannot be many post-war buildings which have stoked up as much controversy as Centre Point.

Designed by Richard Seifert this brutalist building was completed in 1966 and at 398ft was the second highest in London.

Controversy did not stop at its uncompromising design as the building remained empty long after its completion.

[C]entre Point’s developer, Harry Hyams, sat on a rising asset as its capital appreciation far outweighed the rental income with the added bonus that the un-let office block did not attract rates.

Nestled at the windy base of this building, caused by the downdraft as the wind hits its upper floors, once stood a blue mosaic lined pool with five triple-tined-Y-shaped fountains.

Operators of these fountains had an idiosyncratic approach to when they should be turned on. On hot summer evenings girls waiting for the Astoria to open would sit on the fountain’s parameter wall staring at an empty pool safe in the knowledge they would remain dry. On windy winter nights, aided by the downdraft from 35 storeys above them, hapless pedestrians walking past would get soaked.

Now where these iconic Grade II listed fountains once stood there is what must be the largest hole in Europe with Centre Point teetering on the precipice as engineers construct a new station for CrossRail. When finished in their place will sit two wonky glass pyramids which the designers describe as crystal sculptural forms.

The Centre Point fountains were the work of German artist Jupp Dermbach-Mayen who built the fountains at his Swiss Cottage studio in 1963. The Twentieth Century Society claim the planned removal of them was symptomatic of a wider problem of post-war art being separated from its architectural context.

Those infamously-sporadic concrete flower fountains will be missed, though . . .