Category Archives: An urban view

London’s Cornucopia of Curiosities

This contribution to CabbieBlog has a rather fruity flavour to it; with its artificially high climate, London can support a wide variety of soft fruit varieties.

Hanged by silk

There stands in the south-west corner of Buckingham Palace’s gardens a testament to hope over adversity, evidence of when King James I decided that England would benefit from an indigenous silk industry and to that end planted four acres of mulberry trees. Alas, the Mulberry Garden as it became known came to nothing and just one tree was left producing nothing more valuable than its fruit. Silk is useful for if one is granted the freedom of the City of London and if you are then sentenced to hang for a crime, the execution can only be carried out using a silken rope.

Olive tree in Chelsea Psysic garden

Chelsea’s spiff crop

Established in 1673 by the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries, Chelsea Physic Garden is home to Britain’s tallest outdoor olive tree; at over 30ft high it was capable in 1970 of producing 7lb of its delicious fruit. The garden is also home to the world’s northern-most outdoor grapefruit tree. Hidden behind towering its brick walls, protected from the city’s sounds and harsh breezes, the most idyllic collection of plants flourish in a unique, carefully created microclimate. The garden at one time was home to London’s only legitimate cannabis plants and predictably scrumpers bunked over the wall and ‘harvested’ the crop.

Great Vine Hampton Court

The Gantsville Grape

With a girth of 12ft round, its base the Great Vine in Hampton Court Palace garden is the oldest and largest known vine in the world. Planted by the famous garden designer Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown around 1768 its rods measure an incredible 120ft. The vine produces an average of 600 bunches of grapes a year which can still be bought from the Palace’s shops. In 1933 proceeds of its crop were given to soldiers blinded in World War I. The vine originated from a small cutting taken from a vine in Valentine’s Park at Gants Hill in Essex. Gants Hill is an area now so favoured by London’s cabbies to live in they are known as Gantsville Cowboys.

Nellie Melba

Life’s a peach

When Dame Nellie Melba visited London in 1893 the Savoy’s chef Auguste Escoffier created a dish in her name containing the diva’s favourites – peaches, raspberries, redcurrant jelly and vanilla ice-cream – combining the ingredients in such a way as to reduce the impact of cold ice cream on her vocal cords. The hotel once boasted an orchestra led by Johann Strauss, a dishwasher by the name of Guccio Gucci who went on to start the famous fashion brand and its first manager was César Ritz. Now after a complete refurbishment which has cost the equivalent of over £1 million per guest room, will it raise the standard of cuisine again?

Featured image: The threatened Bethnal Green Mulberry Tree; photograph by Bob Philpots read about its fate on Spitalfields Life.

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 14th May 2010

Chain reaction for climate change

The story of the Brompton bicycle is much more than a tale of British engineering achievement.

It is a story of loyalty, passion and true British grit of how a bright young engineering graduate with a dogged determination spent years trying to persuade a sceptical world that his ingenious little bike would challenge the very way we all use urban transport.

For this Guest Post Eve Pearce writes that this tiny wheeled wonder that is still manufactured in London integrates perfectly with the London cab.

Cabs Form Part Of Integrated Transport Solution In London

When reading newspapers it is possible to form the opinion that cab drivers and cyclists do not get on. Competing for the same road space with vastly different vehicles is not a recipe for harmony. London leads the way when it comes to cycling in the United Kingdom, the streets are full of cyclists with differing objectives. Commuters speed to work trying to gain an edge over four-wheeled transport whilst leisure cyclists take in the sights of the capital and the hardcore try to emulate London born Tour De France winner Bradley Wiggins. The streets are also full of cycles, more than eight thousand are located in docking stations as part of a city-wide initiative to make cycling accessible by introducing pay as you ride bikes in all areas of London. Affectionately known as “Boris Bikes” the distinctive machines were actually proposed by Ken Livingstone during his term of office before being enthusiastically embraced by the current London Mayor, Boris Johnson. There is another London cycling success story that has provided an integrated transport solution that links cycles and cabs for thousands of commuters across the city.

British Manufacturing Leads The Way

The Brompton bicycle is a modern British manufacturing success story. The company employs over one hundred and forty people in its factory in Brentford and manufactures a range of folding bikes that are exported all over the world. In London, it is hard to miss commuters using their machines as the riding style is upright owing to the styling of the cycle. With smaller wheels than a typical cycle and folding joints in strategic places, the cycle folds down into a small unit that can be carried in one arm without disrupting passers-by. The cycle is so small when folded down it can be deposited in the back of a London cab quite easily and this is the key to the success of Brompton as a manufacturer. Its users are not restricted in the same way other cyclists are. If they choose to cycle to work in a morning they are not obliged to cycle on the return leg. If they are not motivated to cycle or the weather is inclement it is easy to hail a cab and travel with the bike to any destination. A folding bike that compacts to the size of a small piece of hand luggage is the perfect solution for the occasional cyclist. Cab drivers do not have to worry about the terms of their taxi insurance because they are not carrying a bike in a way that affects other road users. There is no increased risk of liability for any driver carrying a passenger travelling with a folding bike.

Quality Ride

Despite its quirky looks and unusual riding style, the Brompton folding bike offers a fun yet comfortable ride. The frame is resilient enough to cope with the streets of London and the addition of mudguards as standard protects riders from any spray thrown up during wet weather. There are many folding bikes on the market but Brompton is the most distinctive and in many ways a trendsetter for that sector. Whilst the Brompton World Championships take place at Goodwood Motor Circuit, London has its own event, the Brompton Urban Challenge. One hundred and twenty-five participants compete in an event that has an orienteering style format and encourages riders to use their skill and ingenuity to make the most out of their folding bike.

The Future

Whilst there may still exist some antipathy between motorists and cyclists in London, the development of London made Brompton in reshaping London as a cycling city has been exciting to watch. Londoners are now used to seeing riders pedalling furiously along the roads in that familiar style or scurrying along the pavement with a bike tucked under their arm. In many cities with a lower participation rate for cycling the machines still, draw incredulous looks from passers-by. In London, there is probably no cab driver that has not had one in the back and in times of poor weather, the London cabbie is the saviour of many stranded commuters. The Office of the Mayor of London announced in 2012 as part of the Olympic Legacy programme, ambitious plans to make cycling in the city even more attractive. The plans are several years from fruition but it is anticipated that cycling knowledge of London cabbies will be developed as demand for its services increases at strategic points on the London cycle path network.

Photo from Lady Fleur who when visiting London wrote an account of 48 hours in London with a Brompton Bike.

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 24th May 2013

Proof that you are not being served in London?

Continuing from last week’s post here is proof of the shrinking high street.

A tradition for many of us ‘baby boomers’ at this time of the year was the annual pilgrimage to one or more of London’s department stores. Curiously many had originated with two owners: Bourne & Hollingsworth; Dickins & Jones; Marshall & Snelgrove; Swan & Edgar; Derry & Toms; Arding & Hobbs; or Swan & Edgar. Many now do not exist as stand-alone department stores, just not able to move with post-war shopping trends.

London’s largest store

Gordon Selfridge London’s greatest department store proprietor saw how trends were changing as early as 1909 when he opened the largest of all stores at that time and allowed customers to see the merchandise on offer, and not as his competitors, offering to show prospective buyers a selection chosen by the shop assistant.

To get some idea of pre-war shopping customs watch any episode of Are You Being Served?

War years had protected most stores from the new style, but by the 1970s most had suffered from the birth of style-shopping and both management and staffs were unable to update fast enough to attract the newly-moneyed.

The very best service

Politeness, knowledge of stock and free advice gave way to self-service racks stocking the latest fashions which would change by the season.

The specialist stores: Lilywhites for sporting wear; Fenwicks aimed at country ladies of a certain age; and Libertys for fabrics have clung on, but most have succumbed to the supermarkets of TK Maxx, H&M or the nightmarish souk – Primark.

Should you be in any doubt about the changing face of the high streets consider this list of closed department stores compiled by Diamond Geezer:

Central: Army & Navy (Victoria), Bourne & Hollingsworth (Oxford Street), Catesby’s (Tottenham Court Road), Civil Service Supply Association (Strand), Daniel Neal (Portman Square), Debenham & Freebody (Wigmore Street), Dickins & Jones (Regent Street), Gamages (Holborn), Gorringes (Victoria), Jordans (Lisson Grove), Marshall & Snelgrove (Oxford Street), Swan & Edgar (Piccadilly Circus), Thomas Wallis (Holborn), Woolland Brothers (Knightsbridge), Whiteleys (Bayswater)

North: John Barnes (Finchley Road), Bartons (Wood Green), B B Evans (Kilburn), Evans and Davies (Palmers Green), Jones Brothers (Holloway Road), Pearsons (Wood Green), Stephens (Stoke Newington), Wards (Seven Sisters), Wilsons (Crouch End)

West: Barbers (Fulham), Barkers of Kensington, Bentalls (Ealing), Derry & Toms (Kensington), F H Rowse (West Ealing), General Trading Company (Kensington), Goslings (Richmond), John Sanders (Ealing), Pontings (Kensington), Randalls (Uxbridge), Soper’s (Harrow), Wright Brothers (Richmond)

South: Allders (Croydon, Sutton), Arding and Hobbs (Clapham Junction), Bon Marché (Brixton), Grants (Croydon), Kennards (Croydon), Pratts (Streatham), Quin & Axtens (Brixton), Shinners (Sutton)

Southeast: Chiesmans (Lewisham, Bexleyheath), Cuffs (Woolwich), Fantos (Deptford), Garretts (Woolwich), Hides (Bexleyheath), Hinds (Eltham), Jones and Higgins (Peckham), Medhursts (Bromley), Pyne Brothers (Deptford), Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society (Woolwich), Tower House (Lewisham), Walter Cobb (Sydenham)

East: Bearmans (Leytonstone), Boardmans (Stratford), Chiesmans (Ilford, Upton Park), Dawson’s (City Road), Dudley’s (Dalston), Gardiner’s (Whitechapel), Houndsditch Warehouse (Aldgate), Harrison Gibson (Ilford), Keddies (Romford), J R Roberts (Stratford), Wickhams (Stepney)

Various: British Home Stores, Co-Op, Marks & Spencer, Owen Owen (Finchley, Ilford, Richmond, Uxbridge)

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 13th December 2016

Are you being served in London?

About 16 shops are closing every day as retailers restructure their businesses and more shopping moves online. A net 1,234 stores shut on Britain’s top 500 high streets in the first half of the year, according to research by PwC.

The demise of Tobacco Dock

Peter Watts writes on his Great Wen site of the demise of Tobacco Dock. Opening in 1989 the dock conversion featured two arcades of shops on two floors inside a skillfully modernised structure that retained its Victorian industrial integrity. It now lies there completely empty.

No more department stores

Once London had a number of prestigious stores many owned in a partnership of two men. Unlike the generically named Next or Top Shop their premises reflected the owners’ personal taste and retain acumen. As our shopping habits change the great days of the department store are probably over. There are some survivors left in London, but many of the great privately owned retail partnerships have gone. Old fashioned concepts like knowledgeable staff, politeness and service are now less important in a digital retail age.

Arding & Hobs

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One of the few stores Sarf of the River. This department store was once situated at Clapham Junction and very often spoken of as “Arding ‘n’obbs”. It opened in 1885 and at that time was the largest store south of the River. Destroyed by fire in 1909 it was rebuilt in Edwardian baroque style the original signage remains in place above the main entrance. Now Debenhams.

Bourne & Hollingsworth

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Mr. Bourne and Mr. Hollingsworth set up a fancy drapers’ shop in 1894 in Westbourne Grove. In 1902 they moved to Oxford Street slowly acquiring the rest of the block including a brothel, a ‘next of Polish tailors’ and Savory’s cigarette factory. Closed in 1983.

Derry & Toms

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A little shop run by Joseph Toms described as a ‘toy and fancy repository’ joined with Charles Derry acquiring seven shops one of which was described as a ‘mourning department’. The firm prided itself on being the main suppliers to the upper classes of South Kensington and had over 200 employees living in. Closed in 1973 and taken over by Biba.

Dickens & Jones

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Dickens originally opened a shop in Oxford Street in 1790 moving to Regent Street in 1835. By 1900 the staff totalled 200, most of them lived in nearby Argyll Street. In the 1890s John Pritchard Jones became a partner and the store changed its name. In 1901 the store was all prepared for a while sale when Queen Victoria died. Most of the stock was dyed black to meet the urgent demand for mourning wear. It is now owned by House of Fraser.

Marshall & Snelgrove

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Opening in Vere Street in 1837 their nearby rival was William Debenham. By 1871 James Marshall the son of the founder had introduced a large mail-order business. Alas the rivalry is over Marshall & Snelgrove is now part of the vast Debenhams empire.

Swan & Edgar

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William Edgar had a haberdashery stall in St. James’s Market and used to sleep under it at night. Meeting Mr. Swan together they ran a shop in the Ludgate area. In 1812 they moved to Piccadilly Circus and then Regent Street premises which had been the Western Mail coach offices and also the Bull and Mouth public house. They retained the inn licence until the late 1970s. Its vast store was closed in 1982.

Waring & Gillow

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The business was established by Robert Gillow in Lancaster about 1731 and by 1765 leased some land in Oxford Street that was to become the Selfridge’s site. S. J. Waring had a cabinet making enterprise in Liverpool and in 1895 had a retail outlet in Oxford Street. The companies merged and made furniture for Boodle’s, the Garrick and Reform Clubs. However, the business of the firm began to decline and the Lancaster workshops closed in 1962 and the company merged with Maples.

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 11th June 2013

Undiscovered Hippy Homes

It was a beautiful summer’s evening and after nearly five years hard graft to pass The Knowledge a task which at times had taken over my life I was now ‘King of the Road’. Having criss-crossed London a thousand times I thought I knew every square, cul-de-sac and back-water of London, but my fare had directed me to Bonnington Square, somewhere I had never investigated. Turning into the square ahead of me was a sub-tropical garden in Vauxhall!

[F]OR HERE tucked away a stone’s throw from where the gardener John Tradescant had founded ‘The Ark’ with its collection of botanical specimens from around the world were tropical trees in peoples’ front gardens.

The story of the saving of Bonnington Square from developers is a true David v Goliath. In the early 1980s a large number of properties were acquired for demolition by the then Inner London Education Authority in advance of proposals to build a new school on the site. However, plans for the school were dropped and the houses were left empty.

Squatters rights

The square was taken over by squatters who formed a Bohemian community comprising of individuals from around the world. The squat had two community gardens one created from a derelict playground which previously was a bomb site, a café, wholefood shop, nightclub, newsletter and even a milk bar.

Forming housing co-operative they started negotiating with the ILEA to lease the 100 properties to the South London Family Housing Association. The co-op did up the houses and saved them from dereliction, some have tenants or shared ownership and some even have the occasional freehold.

If ever there was a place in London which shows the capital to be a collection of villages, this little community, in the shadow of the brutal St. George’s Wharf this is it.

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 10th May 2013