The most beautiful road in London

If ever evidence was needed to support the claim that London’s streets were paved with gold the place to find it would be Exhibition Road. This road underwent a transition that transformed it into ‘the most beautiful road in London’ . . . . . . . . . .

Exclusively for Patrons, here is List 5: Run 65 the next ‘run’ from my travelogue Pootling around London: Manor House to Gibson Square, again I hope you find it both amusing and informative.

Thank You again for your support.

St. John’s Wood Station NW8 to Brompton Oratory SW7

I am now starting my fourth year on The Knowledge, the 468 runs have given me a lattice of routes across London, it is now my task to fill in the gaps. Seeking out points that I don’t already know, and some that I’ve since forgotten is filling my days – and nights. Taking a sector of London at a time, those in the City or West End are tracked down at night, while further afield points are left to the weekend.

I had wanted to join a Knowledge school, in the early 1990s there were plenty to choose from, but unfortunately working more than 40 hours a week there is precious little time left.

This decision has probably cost me another year’s work. Knowledge schools teach you shortcuts to remembering this mass of detail, introduce you to others as keen as yourself to ‘call-over’ and supply the mass of sundries needed, from maps and pen holders to boards to mount on your handlebars enabling you to write down just what you might discover around London.

The secret of finding the right Knowledge partner is that you try to get someone slightly better than yourself to test mock appearances, or call-over as it is known, the school has a greater choice of partner or partners and gives sound advice as you progress. But the most important help they give is the camaraderie of others on the road to achieving your badge and license or bill as it is known in the trade.

A check around St. John’s Wood Station I find Grace’s Gate, a perennial favourite with examiners, these are a pair of ornate memorial gates at one of the entrances to Lord’s Cricket Ground in St. John’s Wood Road. The attraction to asking this, I suppose, is that it rather trips off the tongue. Another important point to check out is the Green Cabbies’ Shelter in Wellington Place – which is close to where the original shelter was erected – known by the trade as ‘The Chapel’ or given its proximity to the home of English cricket, ‘Nursery End’.

Leaving Acacia Road, which always seemed to me to describe an idyllic semi-detached suburban tree-lined road in the 1930s, this is far from that, the multi-million properties around here are guarded by a private foot patrol day and night.

Soon I’m travelling down Edgware Road which can only be described as another of London’s little villages, this one seems to have nothing but Lebanese restaurants lining both sides of the road.

Cutting through Hyde Park Gate, which isn’t a physical gate, to reach my second gate of the day. Victoria Gate is at the northern entrance to Hyde Park, beside which is its lodge, a Grade II listed building that the thousands who pass by its front door barely give a second glance, hardly surprising for this simple three bedroomed building has none of the ornateness of the other lodges, it is now occupied by the assistant manager of Hyde Park Gardens.

It is the garden behind the lodge that makes this little building so special – a pet cemetery dating from the late 19th century with hundreds of miniature, mildewed gravestones bearing the patina of old age.

First came ‘Cherry’, a Maltese Terrier, who belonged to the children of Mr and Mrs J Lewis Barned, who resided at 10 Cambridge Square. They frequently visited Hyde Park and made the acquaintance of the gatekeeper at Victoria Lodge who also sold them lollypops and ginger beer for their children. When Cherry died of old age there was much grievance in the family and they decided to approach the gatekeeper, Mr Windbridge and his employer, to ask if they could lay Cherry to rest in his back garden, which was seemingly appropriate since they had enjoyed such good times together in the Park. Permission was granted and Cherry was laid to rest in a resplendent ceremony. A tombstone bearing the inscription ‘Poor Cherry. Died April 28. 1881′, was constructed in his memory.

From this simple act of kindness, this mostly canine necropolis gained popularity when in 1880 George, The Duke of Cambridge – who had flouted royal convention by marrying an actress, Louisa Fairbrother – asked that his distraught wife’s favourite dog, Prince, who had been run over, be buried in the garden. The Duke who just happened to double as Chief Ranger of Hyde Park persuaded Mr Windbridge to give the poor creature a proper burial in the back garden of his lodge.

By 1915, graves in Mr Windbridge’s garden were so tightly packed that the cemetery was closed. Over 300 animals are laid to rest here – dogs, cats, birds, and even a monkey are interned here. The epitaphs range from the touching to the maudlin; quotes from the Bible and Shakespearean couplets are sprinkled among personal tributes:

’To the memory of my dear Emma – faithful and sole companion of my otherwise rootless and desolate life’.

’Darling Dolly – my sunbeam, my consolation, my joy’.

’Prince. He asked for so little and gave so much’.

‘Alas Poor Zoe. Born October 1st. 1879. Died August 13th. 1892. As deeply mourned as ever dog was mourned, for friendship rare by her adorned’

’In memory of our darling little Bobbit. When our lonely lives are over and our spirits from this earth shall roam, we hope he’ll be there waiting to give us a welcome home’.

Some posh dogs even had bespoke coffins. One lady who buried her Pomeranian in a locked casket allegedly wore the keys around her neck until she went to her own grave.

This sad little spot received one last canine resident – also named Prince in 1967 when the Royal Marines were granted special permission to bury their 11-year-old mascot in the southern corner.

Only visible through the fence and then before the seasons gives the hedge is summer foliage, it is the place George Orwell called “perhaps the most horrible spectacle in Britain”.

Riding through Hyde Park I’m not subject to the inconvenience of waiting for the traffic inching forward as I travel south towards Alexandra Gate, the next set of gates. After the Great Exhibition was closed, the exhibition building was dismantled, renamed the Crystal Palace and moved to Sydenham where we managed to burn it to the ground in 1936. All that marks its passing here is the Colebrookdale Gates originally made to stand at the entrance to the north transept of the exhibition, the gates were moved to the entrance to Kensington Gardens and remain firmly closed and locked, standing beside Alexandra Gate, and the exit to Hyde Park that has dozens of cars queuing to pass.

If ever evidence was needed to support the claim that London’s streets were paved with gold the place to find it would be Exhibition Road beyond Alexandra Gate. This three-quarter-mile-long road underwent a transition that in the words of Nick Paget-Brown, Kensington and Chelsea’s Cabinet Member for Transport transformed it into ‘the most beautiful road in London’.

Unable to source enough granite locally the Tory council obtained enough stone to match the colour required from China and by using a slow boat from China the council claimed the ‘carbon footprint’ was much reduced. An alternative supplier in the north of England would presumably have parachuted in the granite sets by a gas guzzling Tornado jet. The project cost £30 million which equates to over £22,000 per yard; truly London’s streets are paved with gold.

When completed both drivers and pedestrians shared the same space in what is termed a ‘transition zone’. The most recognisable characteristic of shared space is the absence of street clutter, such as conventional traffic signals, barriers, signs and road markings. This according to the council encourages motorists to slow down, engage with their surroundings and make eye contact with pedestrians – resulting in a higher quality and more usable street area, with enhanced road safety.

Their world is akin to Camberwick Green when everybody is aware of other road users, greeting them with a cheery riposte, and continuing on their journey unimpeded, helping little old ladies cross the road, slowing down for children and dogs so they don’t end up behind the Victoria Gate Lodge.

The western side of Exhibition Road is used by 19 million pedestrians a year visiting the many attractions in the area, by banning vehicles for most of the day they could let everybody enjoy the space and have time to visually inspect in detail ‘the most beautiful road in London’.

Turning left into Cromwell Gardens and forward into Thurloe Place, the Victoria and Albert Museum is on my left, opposite standing in the centre of the road is another cabbies’ green shelter, this one nicknamed ‘The bell and horns’ which derives its nickname from a long-ago extinct public house.

It is Brompton Oratory that I’ve come here to check out, only for the purposes of gaining my badge you understand, for this large Catholic place of worship once had a dark secret. During the Cold War at the front of the building, between the pillars and wall, Soviet spies used the space as a dead drop. Was it the church’s proximity to Harrods that made it the perfect choice? Espionage material was also left near a small Pietà statue just inside the entrance, and behind the Oratory is Holy Trinity Church, its statue of St. Francis of Assisi was used as the marker to point to the base of a nearby tree also used as a dead drop.

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