We challenge our contributors 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 they will face the same questions ranging from their favourite way to spend a day out in the capital to their most hated building on London’s skyline to find out what Londoners think about their city. The questions are the same but the answers vary wildly.
Caroline Roope is a freelance writer specialising in social history. She contributes regularly to Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine, Best of British and Discover Your Ancestors, writing on history topics as diverse as Scalextric to Victorian cross-dressing. Caroline spent over ten years working in the heritage and museums sector for small-scale independent charities, as well as larger organisations such as the National Trust and English Heritage. Her first history book The History of the London Underground Map is out now with Pen & Sword.
What’s your secret London tip?
If you’re travelling by Underground, it’s easy to zone out – I know because I used to do it myself – but certain sections are a historical feast for the eyes if you know where to look. Look out for Victorian detailing in stations such as Paddington and Baker Street, and early twentieth-century style at Russell Square and Edgware Road (Bakerloo line).
What’s your secret London place?
Inside the Queen’s private facilities in the Royal Albert Hall there is a toilet with a velvet seat, especially for Royal bottoms. I have seen it with my own eyes…
What’s your biggest gripe about London?
That no one can really afford to live there – least of all me!
What’s your favourite building?
This is the hardest question so far! There are so many wonderful buildings, with so many amazing stories behind them. For sheer drama and kerb appeal it has to be the Midland Grand Hotel – now St Pancras Renaissance Hotel. I was lucky enough to get a behind-the-scenes nose around during its restoration and it just radiates magnificence, inside and out. Thank God I got that opportunity because I wouldn’t be able to afford to stay there now!
What’s your most hated building?
I’m not keen on the O2 – it’s a shame Storm Eunice didn’t take the whole thing with it. And there are some pretty awful 1960s monstrosities dotted around London too. It’s all subjective of course. Today’s eyesores often become tomorrow’s heritage.
What’s the best view in London?
From an aeroplane window. I flew over London at the end of last year on my way back from a holiday and because I don’t often see London from above like that, it was fascinating seeing all my favourite London landmarks in miniature. I was also surprised at how much green space there is, given the density of buildings. In London itself, my best view is from the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. That sweeping vista down to the old-world grandeur of Sir Christopher Wren’s Naval College, set against the backdrop of modern and shiny Canary Wharf is the perfect juxtaposition of old and new.
What’s your personal London landmark?
It’s got to be the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich. I studied there from 2005-2007 and it holds some very special memories for me. Getting off the DLR at Cutty Sark and meandering down College Approach to those enormous globe-topped gateposts always made my heart sing. Being able to study for an MA in Heritage in a UNESCO World Heritage Site was an absolute privilege – my surroundings inspired me every day.
What’s London’s best film, book or documentary?
I love both of Peter Ackroyd’s studies of London – London: The Biography and Thames: Sacred River and urge everyone to read them because they absolutely capture the essence of London and what makes it special. I also love John Betjeman’s quiet but poignant eulogy to London’s suburbs in his documentary Metroland.
What’s your favourite restaurant?
I recently went to Barrafina in Drury Lane, which was superb. It’s tapas, which is perfect if you’re with friends and you all like pinching off each other’s plates (which my friends and family do) But actually, what made it special were the staff – our server was attentive and knew all the dishes and was happy to explain each one to us, as well as recommending drinks. The seafood dishes are out of this world.
How would you spend your ideal day off in London?
A day isn’t long enough! Now I live out in the sticks near Portsmouth, I’d need several days to really make the most of it. I’d head to Tate Britain first, so I could catch up with my favourite painting The Lady of Shalott by J. W. Waterhouse – if she’s in town, and not on tour somewhere else. I’d head to South Kensington on the Tube, just for the sheer excitement of walking down the District Railway’s stunning 1885 pedestrian subway. You can’t go wrong with a good bit of Victorian engineering. Obviously, I’d have to visit the museums too, having walked the length of the subway it would be a shame not to! To be honest, I’d plan my trip so that I could spend most of the day travelling around the Underground and looking at its architecture.