Category Archives: An urban view

Cabinet of Curiosities

[A]ll men like to collect and catalogue ‘stuff’ and Victorian gentlemen were no different from today’s men. Amongst their collections could be found animal skulls, fossils, shells, a miniature book or maybe a small timepiece. They would display their finds in a cabinet , a cabinet of curiosities. In the same spirit of inquiry CabbieBlog gives you its London Cabinet of Curiosities.

Rose Square A pastiche of a pastiche
In Rose Square on the Fulham Road all is not what it seems. When these very smart apartments are finally pulled down, it will reveal a 21st century re-working of a mid 19th century re-creation of a Tudor college or cloister. It was built originally for a hospital for consumptives in 1844 by architect F. J. Francis who promptly vanished into Victorian obscurity.

Ely Place The Holborn Fens
Ely Place is the archetypal London street, tall, prosperous Georgian buildings, solid trustworthy, elegant and private, it’s even gate and guarded by a beadle. His tiny one-roomed lodge is nothing more than a door, a window, a fireplace and a chimney which is curiously supported by the window. This quiet cul-de-sac was the site of the Palace of the Bishops of Ely in Cambridgeshire, and therefore out of the jurisdiction of London.

1561712927_d09325835c Elizabethan Toolshed
This octagonal building was designed as a summer house to form part of a £200 improvement in 1886 of what was then a private square. It is now one of the most picturesque garden sheds you will find in London. A fountain previously stood on the site with four jets, representing the Thames, Severn, Tyne and Humber rivers, but has vanished just as have Centre Point’s fountains nearby.

Old Curiosity Shop The Old Curiosity Shop
This charming one-bay, two-story, 17th century shop with an overhanging upper story is conspicuously picturesque but obliterated by the dull buildings towering around it. In Dicken’s story of the same name, Little Nell and her grandfather fled the shop leaving it in the hands of the evil dwarf Quilp. Dickens described the shop as ‘the old house was a patch of darkness among its gaily lit neighbours’. Today the roles are reversed, Portsmouth Street where it stands, is one of the bleakest, most anonymous byways in central London.

Hornor’s Panorama

1400px-London_360_from_St_Paul's_Cathedral_-_Sept_2007 A panorama of modern London, taken from the Golden Gallery of St. Paul’s Cathedral

[T]he United States Capitol Building, Taj Mahal and Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore all have their admirers, but for CabbieBlog standing head and shoulders above them all is the largest Cathedral in England, Sir Christopher Wren’s St. Paul’s Cathedral.

It is remarkable that St. Paul’s should have been built under the supervision of only one master-builder, Thomas Strong and one architect. Construction took over 35 years, so long in fact that a lazy workman at the time would have been called a St. Paul’s workman.

In Florence no building is allowed to dominate its beautiful cathedral. It’s a simple principle that has enhanced their city. Unfortunately this has not been the case in the area surrounding St. Paul’s. The buildings after the Second World War were dire and it has only been after the intervention of Prince Charles that adjoining Paternoster Square, completed in 2003, is harmonious.

180px-PaternosterSquare-TempleBar The arch connecting Paternoster Square to St. Paul’s is Temple Bar designed by Wren and originally positioned at the western end of Fleet Street as a ‘bar’ to people approaching the City of London. In 1880, a brewer Sir Henry Meux bought the stones (at the instigation of his wife, Valerie Susan Meux, a barmaid he married amid much scandal) and re-erected the arch as a gateway at his house, Theobalds Park, between Enfield and Cheshunt in Hertfordshire. It remained there, incongruously sitting in a clearing in a wood, until 2003.

Before satellite imagery, before airplanes, and before photography, the only way of obtaining large-scale and factual panoramic views was to get to a good observation point and draw away. Thomas Hornor did just such a thing in 1821: taking advantage of the cross being removed for cleaning from the top of St. Paul’s, he somehow convinced the powers-that-be to allow him to construct an observation post for himself in its place for a long term, uninterrupted and altogether fabulous view of the city of London. He set up shop up there, about 400 feet above the ground, in a shack that was, well, not the safest-looking construction ever to grace atop a cathedral, making minutely detailed drawings of the cityscape, working with a telescope and a great deal of reserve.

hornor panorama

The end result was an enormous, fantastically detailed acre-sized painting which was installed and displayed in a pleasure dome on a site between Albany Street and Cambridge Terrace, on the fringes of Regent’s Park. It was eventually to be called the Colosseum and it was conceived on a suitably grand scale. Designed by a young architect called Decimus Burton, its central feature was a rotunda with a dome 30 feet wider than St. Paul’s and 112 feet high at its apex. The installation was as much an artwork as the painting – it was affixed to the walls and people would view it from a multi-story observation deck in the middle of the building. For those who didn’t want to climb the stairs to get to the viewing room, an ‘ascending car’ was fabricated, making the structure one of the earliest buildings to have an elevator. There is some sort of irony in that: people would pay to see a painting using London’s first elevator to get to the top of a small structure inside another structure to see a painting made from the top of a large structure of a scene that could be viewed for free by walking outside. Nonetheless, the fantabulous painting was viewed by more than a million people before moving on.

As a footnote: Temple Bar’s secondary purpose was a public space to display the severed heads of traitors, something along the lines of the recently concluded One & Other on Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth. Do you think not, maybe some traditions are worth preserving, for people who are paid to despoil London?

Old Father Thames

[A]s I hope CabbieBlog highlights, there’s so much of and so many things in London, but only one river. When, at the start of Three Men in a Boat, George says, “Let’s go up the river!” nobody says, “What river?” Ray Davies felt no need to identify the Thames by name when, at the start of Waterloo Sunset, he declares “Dirty old river, must you keep rolling . . .”

Until the late 19th Century, the Thames was not quite the tranquil pleasure ground it largely is today. In fact, it was more of a traffic jam. By 1700, the London quays were handling 70 per cent of the country’s imports and, in 1799, for the purpose of bringing some order to the jumble of landing places, they started to build the docks.

Now, that word ‘dirty’, from Ray Davies’ composition is very accurate. From the mid-19th century, toilets began to be flushed straight into the subterranean sewage pipes that had originally been built to convey rainfall into the Thames. Then, in 1859, Joseph Bazalgette began building his intercepting sewers to carry the waste to a treatment plant. But the river remained stubbornly brown because, right up until the 1960s, factories along its banks were allowed to dump waste into it.

Although Bazalgette’s improvements denied Londoner’s from having the fun of Ice Fairs on the Thames, as a consequence of the river running faster after being narrowed with the construction of Victoria Embankment, the project was a resounding success.

Other projects did not far so well:
In 1796 Willey Reveley proposed to dig a new channel nearly a mile long in order to save ships the time wasted sailing round the Isle of Dogs.

Engineer Robert Stephenson dipped his toes into the waters of the Thames, approving plans for a giant latticework of steel, to enable trains to run down the centre of the river.

Several eminent Victorians favoured a scheme to dam the river at Woolwich, thereby making the Thames a giant inner-city freshwater lake.

A more recent proposal would have involved covering the river with a concrete deck and building a 6-lane motorway over it, which if completed, would have provided many hours of entertainment when London had the spring tidal surges, that the Thames Barrier was designed to minimise.

new tube mapIn the spirit of daft ideas, Transport for London proposed removing the Thames entirely from its Underground maps.

John Beck’s innovative London Underground map that he designed in 1931, renders the vermicelli of the various lines in the form of a diagram: a circuit board as opposed to a scale map. And there in its lower portion, the Thames, shepherded into neat diagonals. The map is a model of elegance and simplicity that has been imitated the world over. Then, with one click of a designer’s mouse, the Thames was no more. As with so many River Thames “projects” common sense prevailed when London’s mayor, Boris Johnston told them that the great North-South divide must remain.

Today, that North-South divide is as strong as ever. North Londoners crow about the Heath, the civilised, literary atmosphere, while South Londoners boast about . . . well, search me (but then I’m North, you see). The antithesis has always been in place and it has always been of the same order: the North is salubrious, the South much funkier.

Already in Roman times, there was a red light area to the south of the bridge, and in medieval times, Southwark was fully established as an antidote to the moneyed pieties of the City. The brothels south of the river and close to the bridge were called stewes. These stewes were indirectly licensed by the Bishops of Winchester, and existed in close proximity to the houses of various leading churchmen – a sort of News of the World reporter’s dream.

Between the 13th and 18th Centuries, there were houses on London Bridge, and it’s quite captivating to think that, somewhere around the centre of the bridge, there would have been a householder who lived in North London right next door to someone who lived in South London. Of course, they wouldn’t have got on. The one to the north would have always been talking about how going to Hampstead was just like being in the countryside (and he would have had a point in, say, 1400), and the one in the south would have been banging on constantly about how he could never get a cab to take him South of the River’.

Goodbye Piccadilly

180px-Simpsons_of_Piccadilly_2005 When was the last time you had your inside leg measured? Or for that matter you were asked rather discreetly “and on what side does Sir dress?”

One of the last bastions of sartorial elegance is hanging up its tape measure for the last time at the end of the year.
Baron of Piccadilly one of London’s quirkier outfitters is to close, as Crown Estates their landlord plans to pull down their block for re-development.

Further along the road was Simpsons of Piccadilly, now a Waterstones book store. Simpsons opened in 1936 in what is now a listed building, the Art Deco design was the first shop in Britain to have an uninterrupted curved-glass frontage. This new style was made possible by arc-welding a wide-span steel frame, rather than earlier techniques which involved using bulky bolted joints.

[T]he company built as a quality clothing store specifically for men had the ethos that Simpson of Piccadilly was to be a purveyor of ‘quality clothes for the well-heeled’. Indeed, the store regularly attracted the ‘tweed set’ including Royals, MPs, dignitaries and country landowners.

During the early 1950s, scriptwriter Jeremy Lloyd was employed as a junior assistant at Simpsons; he drew on his experiences to come-up with the idea for the highly-popular television sitcom Are You Being Served?

At least Fortnums are still in Piccadilly, the store that gave you such exotic foods as Harts Horn; Gable Worm Seed; Saffron and Dirty White Candy, and incidentally were the first in 1886 to stock the entire output of a Mr Heinz’s newly invented canned food.

An Open House

85 Swains Lane 220px-St_Pancras_Old_Church_2005

[A]rt can be expressed in many ways; painting, drawing, sculpture, but none have the visual impact more than architecture. Done badly it can blight people’s lives and ruin neighbourhoods. One only has to look at some of the housing estates designed in the 60’s by trail brazing architects to see its impact. Conversely good architecture can capture our imagination, change the way we relate to our community, create employment, revitalise a neglected part of London and improve our physical and mental health.

Good design will produce a more attractive environment, stronger communities with a sense of ownership and pride in their local area. Well designed buildings and public spaces are therefore vital in creating and sustaining a vibrant London.

The obsession to design glass boxes has rightly been criticised by Prince Charles, who it seems has continued his one man crusade against these hideous un-English buildings being forced upon us. Hardly a week goes by without one architect or another attacking him for his interventions against this ugliness.

Well, as an antidote to all that is ugly, this weekend sees the annual Open House event where a range of buildings open their doors for free public viewing. From the newly constructed Royal Institute of British Architects 2009 Award Winner; 85 Swains Lane to St. Pancreas Old Church believed to be one of the oldest sites of Christian worship in England. The owners of these properties are proud to show the contribution they play in the shaping of this great City.

CabbieBlog derives some satisfaction reading this year’s programme to find that many of the buildings criticised previously on CabbieBlog have not had the courage to open their doors to the public.