Hore-Belisha’s babies

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.

[B]UT 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).

Who 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.

Belisha Beacons

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 jaywalk instead.

The worst crossings

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 pelicans 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.

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 30th April 2013

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