About Time

The last time any major work was done here was the remedial repairs after World War II and for a building more than 160 years old it’s showing its age.

This Grade I listed Enesco World Heritage Site is in urgent need of some repairs – in fact £3 billion. The proposal is to relocate to another London premises, but if MPs refuse to move home the work could take 50 years to complete.

[L]eaking roofs, ancient electrics and plumbing, asbestos, badly-damaged stonework and subsidence are among the problems at the Palace of Westminster identified recently. If its incumbents are forced to leave the premises while the building work is in progress will they take with them some of the curious and frankly bizarre practices and traditions?

Although as with most places of employment smoking is banned, a snuffbox is positioned at the front door of the House of Commons, it’s been there for centuries and apparently is still full of snuff. Apparently this is because smoking has not been allowed in the Chamber since the 17th century so the snuff box is there instead.

Unsurprisingly Members are forbidden to carry a sword within the Palace’s confines, and so hooks are provided which to deposit them. In the cloakroom wags have hung several plastic replicas as a nod to this archaic rule. Two red lines 2.5 metres apart are also to be found on the Chamber floor. They are intended to be just over two sword-lengths apart, should Member not hand their swords in upon entering the Palace of Westminster.

The door the House of Commons bears the scars of the hundreds of times Black Rod has knocked upon it, only to have it slammed in his face, to symbolically show the Monarch that he or she is only allowed in by consent. One hopes the door will not be repaired in the forthcoming makeover.

The Speaker has a rather worn looking velvet bag hanging from the back of his chair. Incredibly it is there for petitions to be deposited by Members who are too shy to talk about the topic in public – some hope with the present incumbents. From this tradition comes the saying ‘In the Bag’.

The Commons has green carpets and benches and the Lords have on their side of the Palace red, but there are also corridors with a mixed carpet but no-one is very sure that that means.

In the Members’ Lobby are statues to some of England’s greatest Prime Ministers: Churchill; Atlee; Thatcher; Lloyd George; Disraeli and others. Members will touch the statue of their favourite PM before they give a speech for good luck; if they move out what will they touch in their new home?

You can’t die in the Palace of Westminster, because it is a royal palace. Anyone who died there is entitled to a state funeral. If they notice you looking even the slightest bit sick, they carry you out of the building immediately.

Taxpayers spend £247,000 per MP, when all the costs of Parliament are taken into account. That is bound to rise when the building work commences, and if it is like any other project instigated by MPs, the Olympics is just one example, the original figure to be multiplied many times over.

Tin Pan Alley

It is barely 100 yards long and lies in the shadow of one of Europe’s biggest engineering projects.

Tin Pan Alley or Denmark Street as we would have to call it whilst on The Knowledge is under threat according to Peter Watts who writes a polemical piece in The Great Wen.

Historically it is London’s most important street for the music industry.

[R]unning between St. Giles High Street and Charing Cross Road, it started life as a line of residential buildings, by the 19th century it had become the centre for metalwork. For reasons no entirely understood by 1950 it was the hub for selling sheet music.

The nickname Tin Pan Alley is taken from a name given to a district in Manhattan where music publishers set up shop. The derivation of the term is unclear.

By the 1960s other associated strands of the music industry had moved in: publishers, managers, songwriters, musical instrument retailers, and more importantly recording studios Regent Sound and Central Sound. Both The New Musical Express and Melody Maker started newspaper publishing in this little street.

Tourists may flock to the crossing (and get run over) in Abbey Road; their destination should be this little uncelebrated backwater where London’s popular music began.

The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, Eric Clapton, Elton John, Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie and more recently, The Sex Pistols have all at some point in their careers used the facilities to be found in the little forgotten street.

Now we are on the cusp of losing this little piece of history. As the area around St. Giles is redeveloped the remnants of the large Victorian rookery, the location of Hogarth’s Gin Lane cartoons, is being swept away.

Only fools would have tread these pavements during the 1960s but now a new breed of architects is making their mark on this beleaguered area.

Centre Point is being redeveloped into luxury flats and Renzo Pianos hideous Central St. Giles clad in primary colours is now finished but seemingly not completely let.

They are building OuterNet which – you’ve heard this before – promises to revolutionise the way we shop. This development has seen the destruction of some of the buildings backing unto Denmark Street and the remaining properties are being refurbished, or sanitised, in line with the ’improvements’ to the area with the arrival of CrossRail at Tottenham Court Road Station.

The campaigners fear this will spell the end of Tin Pan Alley with rising rents forcing out traditional retailers and heralding in another bog standard retail venue.

The small and enthusiastic group trying to save this historic street have a petition which currently (early December) has over 16,500 signatures https://www.change.org/p/head-of-democratic-services-don-t-bin-tin-pan-alley they can be emailed at savetinpanalley@gmail.com or or contacted at http://savetpa.tk/

Photo: Just Great Guitars information and anecdotes from this little street.

The London Grill: Rachel Kolsky

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.

Rachel Kolsky [H]aving trained as a librarian, Rachel worked as an information professional in the financial services industry for over 25 years, most recently as the Manager, Information Resources at a global insurance company. Her work was recognised at industry level having been awarded the Information Professional of the Year award in 2006 and in her professional organisation, SLA, being awarded the Membership Achievement Award in 2008.

Having a degree in Politics and Modern History her love of research has always been linked to social history in particular and being a Londoner born and bred, this led her to train as a guide, firstly as a City of London Guide, then as a Clerkenwell & Islington Guide and in 2004 she gained the Blue Badge for London, winning the prize for Best Written Paper.

Her tours and talks (Virtual Tours) cover a range of topics but often focussing on the ‘stories behind the buildings’.

When not working or guiding she is very much involved with her local independent cinema, The Phoenix, East Finchley, where she is a Trustee or sailing on the high seas as a guest lecturer on cruise ships.

Rachel has recently co-written a guide book, ‘Jewish London’, published in March 2012.

What’s your secret London tip?
I should not say this on CabbieBlog but my secret London tip is to walk walk walk and make sure you always nip into the alleyways and courtyards. Cabbies, forgive me!

What’s your secret London place?
One of my special places that is still fairly ‘secret’ is the Parkland Walk in north London along a disused railway line.

What’s your biggest gripe about London?
Do I have to have a gripe? Yes, I think I am not allowed a Sorry Guv’nr reply. I think I would love to have one day a year with no traffic – the peace and quiet will make London a different place.

What’s your favourite building?
The Midland Grand Hotel at St. Pancras Station. It has been my favourite ever since I visited it for the first time. I love the exuberance of the decoration, the staircase, the colour scheme (which I have emulated in my own hallway !) and the wonderful evocation of the ‘upstairs downstairs’ feel of a large Victorian hotel.

What’s your most hated building?
Ooh err . . . I am not keen on the Egg otherwise known as the GLA head office. I try but to like it but it just seems to lie there like a big blob.

What’s the best view in London?
I like the view from the top the tower at Westminster Cathedral. It is a bit off centre and you can see for miles. That or from the top of Primrose Hill.

What’s your personal London landmark?
It has to be my beloved Phoenix Cinema in East Finchley, north London. Not only is it one of the oldest cinemas in the country, built in 1910, it has only ever been a cinema and continues to be one, serving up the best of art and world films for its local community.

What’s London’s best film, book or documentary?
How could I choose? There are so many but if you make me choose one it is Hue and Cry from 1947. It is the film that I believe, although I was only about 11 when I was first shown it, fostered my love of London and social history. A gem, an absolute gem.

What’s your favourite bar, pub or restaurant?
I love to eat at either Rugoletta in East Finchley, a small Italian family run restaurant or not far down the road in Archway there is another small family run Italian restaurant, 500. Both are wonderful . . . but book before you turn up!

How would you spend your ideal day off in London?
With good shoes on and a bottle of water the day typically starts with an idea to see this and that and go here and there but always seem to take a different path half way through. There is always something happening that takes you off your chosen plan. That is the glory of London – be flexible and follow your nose and you will always be surprised. The other thing that has to be included in my ideal day is to find a new patisserie and to experience a new chocolate brownie or cake and to end the day at the BFI Southbank. My spiritual home.

Trap Streets

There is an apocryphal story which every generation of Knowledge students hears. It relates an appearance (test) when a Knowledge boy tells the examiner that you could turn right into Farringdon Street from Holborn Viaduct.

The salutary lesson to be learned is that if he had just gone to that location he would have discovered there was a 60ft drop onto the road below.

[T]he hapless Knowledge boy had relied on his A-Z map and had learned the hard way that maps should not be slavishly followed. In fact deliberate errors called trap streets are included, and according to the BBC programme Map Man, broadcast in October 2005, its presenter Nicholas Crane, was told by John Frankel the managing director of Geographers’ who produce The Knowledge bible – the A-Z – that London alone has about 100 trap streets.

Apparently they are inserted to protect copyright. If a map is plagiarised the author can identify it as a copy of his own work. According to Peter Watts’ post in The Great Wen he has managed to clarify this reasoning.

The map itself cannot have a copyright as it is a representation of fact . . . the trap streets and deliberate mistakes change the work from being purely factual into a creative expression and thus able to be protected by copyright.

The example Watts gives is the ‘ski slope’ in the featured image above. There is no evidence of there ever having been a ski slope located in Haggerston Park.

Cartographers are naturally reluctant to disclose other ’deliberate’ errors. Some are known: Gnat’s Hill for Gants Hill; Bartlett Place (incidentally the name of Kieran Bartlett, an employee at Geographers’) for Broadway Walk E14; Moat Lane off Clandon Gardens N3 which doesn’t exist; Wagon Road EN4 which changes its name to Waggon Road after crossing a railway line, but left on the map with the single g spelling.

Another device map makers use to protect their copyright is that they will misrepresent the nature of a street in a fashion that can still be used to detect copyright violators but is less likely to interfere with navigation. For instance, a map might add nonexistent bends to a street, or depict a major street as a narrow lane, without changing its location or its connections to other streets.

Map makers have long had a cavalier attitude when it comes to the truth. Jonathan Swift wrote a poem in 1733 – and I paraphrase:

“If you’re a mapmaker and you don’t know what’s really out there you either make it up or you put in an elephant”.

Curious condominiums

With London property prices going stratospheric you have think outside the box (or 4 walls) if you want to own a property within the most expensive real estate in Europe.

Here in no particular order is some of the Capital’s most smallest and curious homes.

Dubbed Britain’s smallest home, recently sold for £275,000 after the estate agent’s advert went viral.

[T]he converted flower shop in Islington has just 188 sq. ft. of space. less than half the size of a train carriage, and is a fifth of the size of the average new build, is so compact that the front door opens underneath the bed which is on a mezzanine, a tiny bathroom and an open plan kitchen and living area.

Despite going on the market at £100,000 more than the average price of a family home in England there was no shortage of interest, with more than 220,000 people viewing the advert on property websites.


Even this pales against the £550,000 garage which curiously doesn’t have access for a car. With lush rust detail and a delightful wonky roof, a garage on a plot of just 538 sq. ft. off the King’s Road was put on the market recently and snapped in advance of the auction.

With the advent of modern plumbing, water towers became less necessary and eventually became disused buildings. As featured in a Grand Designs programme for Channel 4

Water-Tower Leigh Osborne and his partner Graham Voce transformed an old water tower in Kennington into a nine-story modern home. Renovation work was extensive since the tower was a Grade II listed building. Each level within the tower itself has about one room and the cast-iron tank at the top was converted into an observation room with 360-degree views of the city. In another interesting feature, the tower boasts the apparently largest sliding glass doors in the United Kingdom, the owners were hoping to sell it for a few million pounds, the house that is, not the doors.

South-Kensington The Thin House (Number 5) at the junction of South Terrace and Thurloe Square has become something of a tourist attraction. Approached from the west the entire house appears to be only 7ft wide. This is something of an optical illusion as the house is actually triangular in shape and widens out a little. Even so it’s still only 34ft. across at its widest point. The reason for this unusual shape is the adjacent railway line. What isn’t certain is if the house was modified when the track was built or if it was constructed with a wedge shape from the start. Looking at it one way, it provides a great optical illusion, appearing almost two-dimensional.

Main picture: Zoopla.co.uk