Category Archives: An urban view

Extreme London

Have you ever thought about where some London’s extremities are? Not the edge of its geographical area, but it’s myriad of roads and streets.

London’s shortest thoroughfare

This has to be Leigh Hunt Street, SE1 at 36ft, just a street sign remains, as the street was cut short by the creation of a park. But I go for Kirk Street, WC1 at 50ft as London’s shortest ‘street’ with an address, even if it’s only for the Dickens public house.

London’s longest street

At 1.5 miles is Rotherhithe Street, but Green Lanes at 7.45 miles from Newington Green to Ridge Avenue, Winchmore Hill, is the longest named thoroughfare.

London’s highest road

Westerham Heights, part of Betsom’s Hill adjacent to the A233, at 804ft and where the county boundary intersects just comes within the M25. On the north-west side of the hill, the borders of Surrey, Kent and Greater London meet at Rag Hill.

London’s lowest road

Crossness Nature Reserve, near Thamesmead, a signpost on the Thames Path, where a path leads off into Crossness Nature Reserve by Malc McDonald (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Strictly speaking, the Thames is the lowest point in London, and therefore any adjacent road should qualify, like Lower Thames Street. But it is actually Eastern Way, the A2016 beside the Crossness Nature Reserve, an oasis of wildlife that once was an industrial spot by the River Thames, and is 10ft below sea level.

London’s steepest road

Downe Road Cudham Lane, Bromley, specifically from the road junction nearest the parish church. It drops sharply to a second junction (with Church Hill) before bending left and heading down the steepest hill in London.
Closely followed by the 1 in 5 gradients at Fox Hill, Crystal Palace, this one’s not on the Ordnance Survey map because the road is too minor, but Fox Hill is definitely steep because a sign at the bottom says so. It’s also a historic track and was immortalised in oils in 1870 by the French impressionist Camille Pissarro, who was living in Norwood at the time.

London’s narrowest street

At 15in, Brydges Place is certainly London’s tightest alleyway, funnelling you between St Martin’s Lane (next to the London Coliseum) and Bedfordbury.

London’s widest street

Discounting the M25, laid out in the 1770s by the Adam Brothers and incorporated by Nash in his grand Regency scheme Portland Place was once London’s widest street.

London’s widest pavements

Whitechapel High Street is one of the shortest high streets in London, developed during the sixteenth century as part of the main route between London and Essex, it has the widest pavements in London.

London’s straitest road

We all know that the Romans like to construct their roads in straight lines, regardless of the terrain. So my guess that London’s straitest is Ermine Street – today’s A10 – its southern end is at London Bridge and it ends up in the Norfolk port town of King’s Lynn. While within the M25, it follows an almost vertical line through the City, Stoke Newington, Tottenham and northwards.

Featured image: Welcome to Harringay Green Lanes, the railway bridge carries the passenger service between Gospel Oak and Barking, now part of the London Overground network. Harringay Green Lanes station – called Harringay Stadium until the early 1990s – is just to the right of the bridge, by Stephen McKay (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Some useless information about 10 Downing Street

10 Downing Street

The world’s most photographed door and CabbieBlog is old enough to have driven down England’s most famous short street in his car, turning around at the end and driving out again. Roll on a number of decades and the last time I drove the cab into Downing Street every corner of the vehicle was checked and checked again, the only purpose at that time of going in was to pick up a bust of the unlamented Tony Blair.

Built-in about 1680 by Sir George Downing, Member of Parliament for Carlisle for persons of “honour and quality”, which presumably excluded MPs nominating them for their second homes, the building’s frontage is remarkably unaltered.

Of the original terrace only numbers 10, 11 and 12 remain, acquired by the Crown in 1732, George II offered Number 10 as a personal gift to Sir Robert Walpole, he being an honourable politician would only accept it for his office as First Lord of the Treasury, a gift that a recent incumbent, now moved to Connaught Square, would have bitten His Majesty’s hand off to acquire.

Since that date it has been the official residence of the Prime Minister although many early Prime Ministers did not live there, preferring to remain in their own grander townhouses and letting Number 10 to relatives or junior ministers.

Extensive alterations have over the years been made, including incorporating a further two properties at the back, internally improvements to the property have been made by such eminent architects as William Kent and Sir John Soane.

By the middle of the 20th century, however, Number 10 was falling apart again. The deterioration had been obvious for some time; the number of people allowed in the upper floors was limited for fear the bearing walls would collapse; the staircase had sunk several inches; some steps were buckled and the balustrade was out of alignment; an investigation ordered by Prime Minister Harold Macmillan in 1958 concluded that there was widespread dry rot; the interior wood in the Cabinet Room’s double columns was like sawdust; baseboards, doors, sills and other woodwork were riddled and weakened with disease.

After reconstruction had begun, miners dug down into the foundations and found that the huge wooden beams supporting the house had decayed. Incredibly, there was some discussion of tearing down the building and constructing an entirely new residence. But the Prime Minister’s home had become an icon of British architecture, instead, it was decided that Number 10 (and Numbers 11 and 12) would be rebuilt using as much of the original materials as possible.

Some unless Number 10 trivia:

  • During expensive alterations in the late 1950s remains of Roman Pottery and a Saxon wooden hut were found in the foundations.
  • The zero of the number ’10’ is set at a slight angle as a nod to the original number which had a badly-fixed zero.
  • After the IRA mortar attack in 1991, the original black oak door was replaced by a blast-proof steel one. Regularly removed for refurbishment and replaced with a replica, it is so heavy that it takes eight men to lift it.
  • The brass letterbox still bears the legend “First Lord of the Treasury”.
  • The original door was put on display in the Churchill Museum at the Cabinet War Rooms.
  • Number 10 has been the official home of the Prime Minister since 1735 when Sir Robert Walpole first took residence.
  • It has been home to over 50 Prime Ministers
  • Downing Street stands on the site of a former brewery
  • Number 10 was originally Number 5
  • The last private resident of Number 10 was a Mr Chicken
  • The Cabinet usually meets once a week in 10 Downing Street, normally on a Thursday morning, in the Cabinet room
  • The door has no lock
  • Its postcode is SW1A 2AA

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 11th June 2010

Mary Ward House in Euston

Running parallel to Euston Road, Tavistock Place is used by cabbies heading west towards Euston Station or Tottenham Court Road. Camden Council in an effort to protect the many cyclists using the route has constructed dedicated cycle lanes. The result of which has been to narrow the road producing a perpetual traffic jam, soon to get worse with the advent of HS2.

While sitting stationary you get to notice on the north side of Tavistock Place the stunning Grade I listed 1898 building – Mary Ward House. But who was Mary Ward, and what was her ‘House’ for?

Mary Ward was known in her lifetime as Mrs Humphry Ward, a prolific Victorian novelist, who died in March 1920, at the age of 68. Her novels are not much read now but were successful in their time and tackled the social subjects and issues of faith and doubt that were beloved of the Victorians.

She was also a noted philanthropist and socialist, she helped open up university education to women. She promoted the education of the working classes through the ‘settlement’ movement (which settled students in working-class areas where they worked among the poor). Curiously, she also became a leader of the anti-suffragist movement, campaigning against giving women the vote.

One of her most inspired initiatives was founding Passmore Edwards House in Tavistock Place. This building, funded by publisher and philanthropist John Passmore Edwards, was part of the University Hall Settlement.

Passmore Edwards House had the first properly equipped classrooms for children with disabilities and was also home to a centre where children could come to play in a safe, warm, bully-free environment. A hall, gym, library, and other communal rooms were provided, and there were also residential rooms for those living in the settlement.

Gustav Holst was for a while the settlement’s director of music.

Mary Ward doorThe building’s young architects, Dunbar Smith and Cecil Brewer, themselves lived in the settlement, so knew the background to the settlement movement and grasped the building’s purpose and potential.

They would go on to design the Welsh National Museum in Cardiff, they proved a good choice. The style the adopted for the building was that fruitful blend of Arts and Crafts with Art Nouveau that proved successful in London buildings for education and the arts at around this time. They brought together segmental arches, a variety of window shapes, fine stone detailing, and other features to make an arresting façade. The lettering over the entrances is also delightful.

In 1921, a year after Mary Ward died; the house was renamed in her honour. There is more information about this building and its current use here.

Picture of Mary Ward House by Mike Quinn

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 1st February 2013

The man who cycled London

I have studied maps for most of my life, as a boy scout to undertaking the Knowledge.

So when I discovered Davis Vilums and his passion (or should that be an obsession?), I couldn’t wait to feature it here.

Latvian born Davis grew bored with cycling the same route to work each day and decided to discover alternative streets. Using the cabbies’ bible, the Geographers’ A-Z Super Scale Map, he set out to travel down every street listed.

Overall it took him four years to visit every single road on the map, a not dissimilar time it takes to complete the Knowledge. Starting from his home in Walworth cycling to work in Fitzrovia, a journey that would take between 30 to 40 minutes. Later he expanded his journey to two hours getting to the office whilst reaching the furthest places on the A-Z, and remarkably never being late for work.

When Phyllis Pearsall decided to navigate the labyrinthine London streets, she claimed to have set off early each morning to walk – and catalogue – the streets of the city. She was said to have worked 18 hours a day walking around the 3,000 miles of London’s 23,000 streets to produce the A-Z Street Atlas of London (pronounced A-Zed), completed the task, she claimed, in one year.

Davis planned to visit not only the main roads but every single accessible mews, yard, cul-de-sac and park trail it was possible to go through, taking a more realistic time to complete the task. Unlike Phyllis Pearsall, he used the Endomondo app to make a proper record of the journeys proving that he had actually been there.

I believe that ‘walking the streets’ (or cycling in Davis’ project) has come to be a metaphor, as you go through the atlas you are walking the streets, and discovering London. In fact, Davis found some paths through buildings that weren’t visible on the map, Shoreditch, Bermondsey and one I know Temple, which runs below the Savoy.

Davis’ record of his achievement can be found at Cycling through all the Streets in Central London.

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