Real policemen and fictional detectives

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 . . . . . . . . . .

Exclusively for Patrons, here is my next chapter from my travelogue Pootling around London: Manor House to Gibson Square, again I hope you find it both amusing and informative.

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Real policemen and fictional detectives

The Appearances are arriving with a frightening frequency every 28 days. I now have an unchanging routine. Parking in a nearby supermarket car park and walking into the Carriage Office, before booking in, a visit to the toilet, I check my suit in the mirror, comb my hair and adjust the tie. Using the facilities here is not a pleasant experience, as for many their nerves get the better of them with the inevitable consequences to their body’s functions. After booking in, sitting in the waiting room, I’m struck as to how this small enclosed space must have been when smoking was allowed.

My name is called by Mr Howells, he looks like he might have been a desk sergeant at a large London police station. His short well-cut hair going slightly grey, a straight back, smart grey well-pressed suit, walking slowly with an air of authority, we arrive at his office.

I am remembering more details of the questions now and write them down, along with those pencilled letters denoting who my next inquisitor is likely to be: Messrs Ormes, Price, Shearn, Howells, Mayhew or Hanwell. With this information, I can at least concentrate on the Points being asked by the series of three initial letters pencilled on my Appointment Card denoting with whom I’m likely to face at my next Appearance. Looking at my notes I now see the questions asked today comprised: Royal College of Surgeons to Holloway Post Office; 20th Century Fox to Euston Station; Royal Army Medical College to Liverpool Street Station; and Charterhouse Square to The National Trust. I have obviously managed to satisfy him enough for I get another appointment at Colditz, as it is known by many, in 28 days hence.

One set-back recently has been that my Honda 90 was stolen by joyriders from outside my house and then set alight. Before I leave the Carriage Office I remember to give a quick check of the notice board where bikes, waterproofs and call-over partners are advertised. On an adjacent wall, at the top of the stairs, is a large map of London, its very presence mocking those who fail that day’s Appearance.

I am still working full-time, but fortunately, my shift is in the afternoon and evening, for all 56, 28, 21 and 14-day Appearances are carried out in the morning. Unlike many, I haven’t missed time from work on any visit to the Carriage Office.

After an Appearance I usually take the day off from seeking out Points, the whole process is physically exhausting, but tomorrow is another day.

The next night, after work, I’m checking out Marylebone. The road layout seems pretty simple, the original architects and builders have thoughtfully constructed the east-west roads in a series of straight parallel lines, with the north-south at right angles, presumably, this was done to assist future generations of Knowledge Boys to easily learn this district of London. Between these major road are a number of mews, which when first constructed served to stable the horses with the servants living above.

But first I have to check out the exact location of All Souls Church in Langham Place. This I discover is opposite Broadcasting House, jocularly known by older cabbies as The Tripe Shop. Here 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, symbolising 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 such a young child.

Outside Broadcasting House is a cab rank servicing both the BBC and the Langham Hotel. Here is a rather curious symbol of a bygone age, a yellow phone mounted on a post, which once was used by the well-heeled residents of Marylebone to summon a cab before the age of mobile phones.

The next destination is ‘Pill Island’. The straight roads forming a rectangle between Harley Street and Wimpole Street forming a long block of properties full of private medical practitioners. Cabbies after the war nicknamed Harley Street ‘The Resistance’, not for secret operatives working in the vicinity, but because doctors opposed the formation of the National Health Service.

At the centre of this geometric exercise in roads is Marylebone High Street which bucks the trend of straight lines with a small dog-leg at its northern extremity, where there is a Point that I certainly would be asking if I was an examiner. Here, just north of a short one-way system, is the Marylebone Elm, a rare survivor. It stands in the grounds of a church that was so badly bomb damaged that it was demolished in 1949, incredibly the elm standing a few yards away escaped unscathed. Its second escape was in the 1960s when Dutch Elm Disease decimated over 20 million elms that were the epitome of the English countryside. This 150-year-old beauty stands over 100 feet stretching its branches across the high street.

At the top of the high street turning left into Marylebone Road, immediately on the left is the late Georgian, St. Marylebone Parish Church that this area takes its name. It was here that I had a rather surreal experience. The church was built over a large vaulted crypt which continued to receive the dead until 1853, these corpses were removed in 1980 and were reburied in Brookwood Cemetary in Surrey. The resulting space was redeveloped and an MRI scanner installed. By the mid-90s the injury I sustained riding my bike on The Knowledge necessitated further investigation. I found myself experiencing mild claustrophobia sliding into a scanner in an ancient crypt much like a corpse being interned into the sarcophagus.

Some places in London the indigenous populace is almost non-existent. Your Dad might have dragged you these tourist destinations when you were young and unfortunately, especially when nowadays you are on The Knowledge, you cannot dissuade your out-of-town friends when they insist they be taken to the ‘real’ London when visiting.

These tourist hot-spots mainly serve two functions. First, they bring in much-needed money keeping the Capital functioning. But secondly, and more importantly, they serve to hoover up tourists ensuring that the best that London has to offer is relatively empty for us to enjoy.

The most popular tourist hot-spot is that waxwork emporium on the Marylebone Road which just happens to be opposite the church that witnessed my MRI internment. Thousands queue outside waiting for a chance to take a selfie with Michael Jackson or David Beckham, not with Rolf Harris who curiously is now absent. Those possessed with forwarding planning have even stumped up extra to bypass the queue, little do they realise the highlight of the visit is mingling with others while standing in the most polluted place in London. This busy road has three-and-a-half times EU limit for nitrogen dioxide, a toxic gas linked to asthma, lung infections and other respiratory problems, in fact, the Baker Street Marylebone Road junction has no equal, it’s a chance to really take home a long-lasting London souvenir – emphysema. The last time Tussaud’s was worth a visit on a wet Sunday afternoon was years ago to experience the London Planetarium, this now houses the dubious 4D superhero experience.

Everyone knows that Sherlock Holmes lived at 221b Baker Street, but, there is a problem when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle penned his first Sherlock Holmes ‘A Study in Scarlet’ in 1887 number 221b didn’t exist. Nor for that matter was there a 219, 221 or 223. In the 1890s Baker Street’s numbering only went up to number 85, it then became York Place and eventually Upper Baker Street.

Sherlock Holmes’ researchers suggest that the author based the great detective’s house on either number 21, 27 or 61, and the latest theory, after many, is that number 109, as it is today retaining it Victorian façade and sandwiched between a post office and a betting shop, depicts how the author visualised the great detective’s house.

Now, researcher, Bernard Davies has suggested number 31 Baker Street. He discovered an 1894 map showing all the front doors and lamps. Using forensic analysis of the books and maps he concluded number 31 was the most likely candidate. Alas nowadays this location is now the headquarters of the defunct House of Fraser, the original having been demolished in the last century.

Baker Street was renumbered in the middle of the 20th century and now extends all the way up to 247 Baker Street, which now places the location of 221b at a grand Art Deco building once the Abbey National headquarters. At that time a letter writer was employed by Abbey National to reply to all correspondence addressed to a Mr Sherlock Holmes replying as his secretary.

After the Abbey National vacated the property in 1990 the new owners didn’t wish to keep up the tradition of responding to correspondence. An ex-boarding house at 239 Baker Street got special permission from the City of Westminster to re-name itself 221b becoming The Sherlock Holmes Museum.

Having checked out the Sherlock Holmes Museum I have to locate two more ‘Sherlocks’. Just down Baker Street is the Sherlock Holmes Hotel, but more curiously is the Sherlock Holmes Hotel not far from Trafalgar Square in Northumberland Street. Here behind glass in an upstairs room one may see ‘genuine’ artefacts once owned by a fictional character.

In 1951 Abbey National hosted a Sherlock Holmes exhibition for the Festival of Britain. It featured much Holmes’ ephemera including crumpets supplied each day by a local baker and left on a plate with two different sets of bite marks.

When the exhibition was over, it went on a world tour before returning to London. A publican of a Charing Cross pub, the Northumberland Arms (the re-named The Sherlock Holmes), bought it exhibits and put them on display in an upstairs room where it remains to this day. It features what Holmes’ study would have looked in Victorian London and naturally, the walls are scarlet – yes a Study in Scarlet.

The pub has another strong connection to the fictional detective. In Victorian times, the site was part of the Northumberland Hotel, which features in the early chapters of The Hound of the Baskervilles.

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