What is a cab?

. . . and what’s not.

For years the London cab has been easily recognisable by tourists and residents alike, its design reminiscent of a more gentle age of old fashioned continuity and dependability – well sometimes.

It had its faults – Kamikazi steering which when confronted by a narrow gap would take it into its tiny brain to swerve without the intervention of the driver.

[T]he old FX eventually transmogrified into the imaginatively named TX series looking remarkably similar to its predecessor it was easily recognizable. Apart from the small number of Metro cabs on the street this vehicle has dominated the cab trade; with cabbies inevitably complaining that that there was no choice in which vehicle they drove.

Like London buses, you wait for one to come along and three arrive at once.

Mercedes-VitoFirst was the Mercedes, looking like a van with windows apart from being – sometimes – painted black and an attempt to distinguish it from white van man, while it most certainly doesn’t resemble a London cab. For the driver it has been a revelation in driving, it feels as if you are behind the wheel of – well a Mercedes. Rear wheel steering manages to overcome the elusive 25ft turning circle required by TfL’s Condition of Fitness for taxis.

Nissan-NV200Next off the starting blocks is the Nissan NV200. Claiming to be the world’s taxi it has already beaten off competition to be New York’s official taxi of choice. Boasting much improved fuel consumption and a glazed roof from which passengers will be able to observe London’s leaden skies, it has Boris dancing a little jig as Nissan have promised to introduce an electric version by 2014 bringing his promise to introduce by 2020 an all electric taxi fleet closer to reality.

Karson-Concept-VINow hot on the two pretenders’ heels a third cab comes along. Turkish car manufacturer Karsan (no doubt to be dubbed Karsi), has shown their electric Concept VI which appears to tick all the boxes. Right hand drive, zero emissions, 25ft turning circle and uniquely electronically operated wheelchair ramps which can be used on either side of the vehicle. But unlike the others, with the exception of the TX4, it was designed as a cab from scratch. This vehicle won New York’s popular vote for their taxi of the future.

Ford-Transit-TaxiAlso in the pipeline is the Ford Transit Taxi and that will really make London’s cabbies White Van Men. Picture from Taxi Leaks.

A trip to the Tower

Most of the time writing CabbieBlog is pretty mundane: observation, researching and writing with few perks. But once in a while the blog opens doors as it did for me last week. I was invited to a demonstration of BT’s new Home Hub 4, itself a pretty pedestrian corporate IT talk. The unique setting at 621ft above Fitzrovia made this presentation much more memorable – at the top of the BT Tower of which I have written about before.

[C]ompleted in 1966 and opened by Prime Minister Harold Wilson in 1966 the tower was given Grade II listing by the government showing just how iconic it has become to Londoners. It 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.

Now thankfully those restrictions have been lifted, but not others. After going through some rigorous security checks you enter the lobby. BT was a major sponsor to last year’s Olympic Games and this is evidenced by having two torches mounted on plinths.

A designer’s interpretation of the iconic K5 telephone box made from dozens of mirrors.

Our group was ushered into the high speed lift, unusually for nowadays complete with a lift attendant. An indicator duly recorded that its speed was 1,400 ft. per minute. With no proper emergency stairs a special act of parliament had to be passed making it the only building in the UK that can be legally evacuated by lift.

We arrived at the viewing platform which is situated just below the famous revolving restaurant which takes 22 minutes to complete its circuit. It was closed in 1980 due to security fears, but many diners at the time said that eating while being spun round was disconcerting.

Being the highest building in Fitzrovia it has unrestricted views across London, although while taking these panoramic shots it was rather disconcerting to notice that the windows had handles – could they be opened?

We were told it was unusual to see as far as the new Wembley Stadium in the distance. Note the handles on the windows.

The purpose of the visit was to see a demonstration of BT’s new router but on this floor the Wi-Fi signal was curiously was absent my i-phone.

Regent’s Park is like a green jewel amid the urbanisation of north London.

BT Tower easily dwarfs the Euston Tower.

Exiting the BT Tower I noticed this sign.

While I was in London with my camera I decided to photograph Cowford Lodge for next month’s featured building. Unfortunately the police had cordoned off the area after workmen had punctured a water main while repairing a gas pipe. What did the police expect, that I would drown? Anyway better to be safe than sorry. I took this picture at a safe distance from the dangerous waters of Buckingham Gate.

Where do the City’s extremities lie?

London North, South, East & West
Where Do The City’s Extremities Lie?

By Pete Stean

Have you ever thought about London’s farthest reaches?

Where it extends to in the north, how far east it goes, where its centre is?

Well Pete Stean has and writes about it in the Londoneer.

[I]f so, I have the answers to those questions – combining some map study and consulting various online and offline resources I can give you the definitive run-down on London’s exact dimensions:

  • London’s northern-most point is in Enfield, on a rather unassuming stretch of the M25 between junctions 24 and 25. It lies just to the west of a feature on the map rather romantically called Tilekiln Osiers
  • London’s eastern extent runs as far out as North Ockenden in the London Borough of Havering – specifically, the boundary is about halfway along a charming narrow road lined with trees called Fen Lane.
  • To the west, London’s boundary is again marked by the M25 – to add some spice however, the boundary actually runs around Junction 14. This spot lies just to the west of Heathrow Airport in Hillingdon.
  • London’s southern boundary can be found in the London Borough of Croydon,  and if you want to visit the exact spot it is on Ditches Lane, just to the north of the village of Chaldon in Surrey. The nearest geographical feature happens to be Happy Valley Park – one can only assume that this is so named because you only have to walk a hundred yards further on and you’ll be blissfully happy that you’re no longer in Croydon!

In terms of miles, between its eastern and western extremities London is 35.8 miles across as the crow flies, and 27.9 miles in length from north to south. This brings us to the vexing question of where London’s centre is – in the strictest geographical sense it should be where lines drawn between the four locations I’ve set out intersect which would, surprisingly, make the centre of London the Shell Centre buildings on the Thames riverside just outside Waterloo station.

London's centreI don’t have to tackle this problem however, because there’s a long-standing convention when it comes to the geographical point that marks the centre of London. When you’re driving along the motorway and a sign says ‘London – 10 Miles’, what it actually means is that there are 10 miles between your vehicle and the statue of Charles I, who sits on horseback just off Trafalgar Square – this was the original site of the ‘Eleanor Cross’, or ‘Charing Cross’, which were a series of monuments that commemorated Eleanor of Castille, the wife of King Edward I.

Today the Charing Cross is marked by a Victorian confection in the forecourt of Charing Cross railway station, although as we’ve established it isn’t in the right place . . .

Do you disagree with Pete’s calculations? Do you know of another historic centre for London?  If so, do feel free to pop any thoughts into the comment section below.

One of the resources Pete has utilised to create this post is an interesting hidden feature of Google Maps – if you go to a UK map and type ‘Greater London’ into the search box at the top, the map will zoom down to London and a thick pink line will appear denoting the boundaries of the city. You can do the same thing with other cities and towns – look at this link to see how it highlights London.


PeteThis post has been shamefully pilfered from the Londoneer who rather magnanimously publish under a creative commons licence – Thanks Pete.

The London Grill: Fiona Rule

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.

Fiona Rule

[F]iona Rule is a writer and historical researcher with a passion for the history of London. She regularly contributes to TV and radio programmes and has written three books: The Worst Street In London, London’s Docklands and London’s Labyrinth – The World Beneath the City’s Streets.

What’s your secret London tip?

To hear top class choral music in a beautiful setting – completely free of charge – go to Evensong at St Paul’s Cathedral. It’s held at 5pm on most days.

London's LabyrinthWhat’s your secret London place?

The Garden of St John’s Lodge in Regents Park. Down a narrow path (I won’t say exactly where) lies one of the most stunning gardens in London. I found it completely by accident and initially thought I’d strayed into someone’s private garden!

What’s your biggest gripe about London?

There are way too many vehicles on the roads these days. It makes driving (and parking) a complete misery.

What’s your favourite building?

I’m fascinated by buildings so it’s hard to choose just one. However, if pushed, I would go for The Old Sessions House on Clerkenwell Green. It’s a wonderfully elegant Georgian building with an amazing interior and a very interesting history – it was once the busiest courthouse in England where all manner of thieves and vagabonds were tried. Today it’s a Masonic Centre and a conference venue.

What’s your most hated building?

Westminster Tube Station. This subterranean monstrosity has won various architectural awards but I absolutely hate it. It has a depressing, vaguely apocalyptic atmosphere. Whenever I’m in it, I can’t wait to get out!

What’s the best view in London?

I recently went to a block of flats on the Marylebone Road that had an amazing roof garden with 360 degree views of the city. I could have stayed there for hours spotting the various landmarks.

What’s your personal London landmark?

Although I’m not keen on its exterior, I would have to say the British Library. Within its walls you can find out virtually anything you want to know about London (or anything else, for that matter).

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

This is difficult as there are so many to choose from. However, I have always been more interested in “ordinary” Londoners rather than the great and good so I will choose Henry Mayhew’s extraordinary mid-Victorian survey “London Labour and the London Poor”. Mayhew was intrigued by the city’s working people and interviewed all sorts of characters in order to find out how they lived. The result is a fascinating snapshot of London in the middle of the 1800’s.

What’s your favourite bar, pub or restaurant?

Julie’s in Portland Road, Notting Hill. The restaurant is labyrinthine and every dining area is decorated in a different style. The atmosphere is always good and the food is great. Highly recommended.

How would you spend your ideal day off in London?

I would start off by having breakfast in the café in Regents Park (the weather would be splendid, of course). I would then go and have a trawl round Portobello Market before meeting some friends for a drink in one of the many pubs there. In the afternoon I would visit the National Gallery, then go for something to eat in Julie’s before rounding the evening off with a gig at The Roundhouse.

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

Collcutt’s hidden folly

City of London planners have decreed that the view of St. Paul’s – or what is left of it – must be preserved at all costs from the rapid encroachment of high rise buildings that surround it.

Never mind about seeing Wren’s masterpiece from another viewpoint one sacrosanct sightline is looking east down Fleet Street towards the Cathedral
[see below].

[W]hen it was proposed to demolish the previous building at the junction of St. Mary’s Axe and Leadenhall Street its construction caused a few headaches. Due to the building’s unusual design in having its 14 floors suspended on steel ‘chords’ visible on the building’s exterior it was demolished from the bottom up
[see main picture above].

St. Pauls-1

The architects calculated that its replacement would destroy the sightline of St. Paul’s world famous dome. The design called for the new building to be four times higher and the designer rose to the challenge by producing the new famous ‘cheesegrater’ design ensuring that its distinctive shape would become unobtrusive from Fleet Street and would gain popularity for its famous shape.

Fleet Street

The same planning regulations have not been applied over the years in the museum area of South Kensington where London’s tallest folly manages to keep a low profile.

Having completed ‘The Knowledge’ I thought that I knew all of London’s largest buildings – that was until I read David Long’s Spectacular Vernacular.

At nearly 300ft. Collcutt’s Tower is higher than the dome of St. Paul’s but the subsequent development surrounding the building has ensured the building’s total anonymity.

Designed by T. E. Collcutt, it was he I discovered who designed the Savoy and the Palace Theatre. When completed Collcutt’s Tower marked Queen Victoria’s 50 years on the throne.

Collcutt TowerThe Renaissance-style tower originally had two siblings each with copper roofs, the towers rising up above the Imperial Institute founded after the grand sounding Colonial Exhibition of 1886. On the anniversary of Victoria’s Golden Jubilee the tower was christened The Queen’s Tower.

The Imperial Institute was completed in 1893 and although regarded as Collcutt’s masterpiece a proper function was never found for its use. Its cavernous great hall was used for examination, and was notorious among students in the 1950s for its leaking ‘temporary’ plywood ceiling and the loose-bowelled sparrows that inhabited it.

In the 1960s the Imperial Institute was demolished despite protests led by the poet laureate John Betjeman. Only the single tower was spared, but as the building originally had propped it up the tower’s foundations had to be considerably strengthened thus allowing it to stand proud on its own.

The only sign that this monument to colonialism exists is when 11 times a year on Royal anniversaries its bells are rung much the surprise of local residents (who must wonder where the sound is coming from) and the sparrows.