Tag Archives: London’s buildings

A trip to the Tower

Most of the time writing CabbieBlog is pretty mundane: observation, researching and writing with few perks. But once in a while, the blog opens doors as it did for me last week. I was invited to a demonstration of BT’s new Home Hub 4, itself a pretty pedestrian corporate IT talk. The unique setting at 621ft above Fitzrovia made this presentation much more memorable – at the top of the BT Tower of which I have written about before.

[C]OMPLETED IN 1966 and opened by Prime Minister Harold Wilson in 1966 the tower was given Grade II listing by the government shows just how iconic it has become to Londoners. It was Britain’s most poorly kept secret. Londoners were expected to not notice its presence, in fact for many years it did not appear on any map as its location was protected by the Official Secrets Act, even the taking and storing photographs of the building was forbidden.

Now thankfully those restrictions have been lifted, but not others. After going through some rigorous security checks you enter the lobby. BT was a major sponsor to last year’s Olympic Games and this is evidenced by having two torches mounted on plinths.

A designer’s interpretation of the iconic K5 telephone box made from dozens of mirrors.

Our group was ushered into the high-speed lift, unusually for nowadays complete with a lift attendant. An indicator duly recorded that its speed was 1,400 ft. per minute. With no proper emergency stairs, a special act of parliament had to be passed making it the only building in the UK that can be legally evacuated by lift.

We arrived at the viewing platform which is situated just below the famous revolving restaurant which takes 22 minutes to complete its circuit. It was closed in 1980 due to security fears, but many diners at the time said that eating while being spun round was disconcerting.

Being the highest building in Fitzrovia it has unrestricted views across London, although while taking these panoramic shots it was rather disconcerting to notice that the windows had handles – could they be opened?

We were told it was unusual to see as far as the new Wembley Stadium in the distance. Note the handles on the windows.

The purpose of the visit was to see a demonstration of BT’s new router but on this floor, the Wi-Fi signal was curiously was absent my i-phone.

Regent’s Park is like a green jewel amid the urbanisation of north London.

BT Tower easily dwarfs the Euston Tower.

Exiting the BT Tower I noticed this sign.

While I was in London with my camera I decided to photograph Cowford Lodge for next month’s featured building. Unfortunately, the police had cordoned off the area after workmen had punctured a water main while repairing a gas pipe. What did the police expect, that I would drown? Anyway better to be safe than sorry. I took this picture at a safe distance from the dangerous waters of Buckingham Gate.

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 26th July 2013

Walled in Waldorf

When you are the richest man in America and require an office – and somewhere to house your mistress – you need something just a little palatial, and that is exactly what William Waldorf Astor did in 1892 when he commissioned John Louthborough Pearson to design 2 Temple Place.

Astor had inherited a fortune some $100 million (over 2.5 billion today) on the death of his father in 1890 and after a family row declared America “was no longer a place where a gentleman could live”, a remark for which his countrymen never forgave him.

[A]fter buying the Cliveden Estate (later of Christine Keeler fame) and fearing for the safety of his family he blocked access to the land, prompting the sobriquet “Waldorf by name walled off by nature”. He would later buy Hever Castle in Kent and again ever mindful of security would banish visitors at night from the castle and raise its drawbridge. On another occasion he asserted to Lady Warwick that was he to pull a lever beside his chair every door in 2 Temple Place would close and she could not possibly get out without his permission, as a rather alarming prospect as she later recorded in her memoirs.

twotemple_new03Astor’s mild paranoia with security was to our benefit. For his office – he did after all own a house in the more fashionable Carlton House Terrace one mile away – is built in the Gothic style of the late Victorian period. It looks like a fortified house from the outside, with a golden weathervane on its roof, a copy of Christopher Columbus’ ship the Santa Maria.

But it’s when you enter the house that you are in for a treat. “Hello there, yes the entrance is free and our exhibition of William Morris has a 72-page catalogue if you would care to borrow it. The cafe and toilets are on your left around the corner”. Amazing when did you ever get a greeting like that in an art gallery, or see at the foot of the stairs the largest floral display of amaryllis outside the Royal Horticultural Society?

Stained GlassOn the interior of the house no expense was spared by Astor, no flight of fancy too grand, this is Victorian over-embellishment taken to the highest level. Panels featuring Shakespearian themes, Arthurian knights and what must be a pair of the finest Victorian stained glass windows in London.

Now after a succession of corporate owners the Bulldog Trust, a charity who aims to inspire others into philanthropy has purchased Astor House the ex-office of one of England’s greatest charitable donors. Astor himself took up British citizenship and was given a peerage for his charitable benefactions.

The Bulldog Trust intends to open its doors every year to house exhibitions. At the moment transferred from Walthamstow is the William Morris collection which finishes at the end of the month. Beautifully presented and rated 2nd best by Time Out. Who said of Astor House:

“Lavish, quite bonkers . . . and rather endearing . . . ”

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 20th January 2012

Lost London: Crosby Hall

My son recently gave me for my birthday a book which could be described as a tome Panoramas of Lost London by Philip Davies an extra large format copy containing over 200 black and white photographs of London before redevelopment.

It is heartbreaking to see how much of London remained untouched for centuries until the Victorians razed great swathes of the city in their quest for modernity.

[H]itler tried to finish the job, but it was during the 1960s that we destroyed far more than aerial bombardment had done and finished off the job of removing all traces of the medieval city.

One surprising survivor remains unknown to thousands of motorists as they drive past it each day little realising its importance, the fascinating story of a building’s survival and the present owner’s obsession for all things Tudor.

Crosby Hall has been described by Simon Thurley director of English Heritage as:

The most important surviving secular domestic medieval building in London, Sir John Crosby’s great hall has on several occasions been snatched from the brink of demolition, which after a 400-year gap, it is being incorporated back into a private house.

Forget Russian oligarchs and over-paid footballers, the property on Cheyne Walk almost opposite Battersea Bridge is probably the largest house in private ownership in London, a house whose nucleus started in the City of London.

Built in Bishopsgate between 1466 and 1475 for rich City merchant Sir John Crosby, it was later purchased by Sir Thomas More and now is located at the site of More’s Chelsea garden.

King Richard III and Sir Walter Ralegh both used it as their temporary home and it later was the head office of The Honourable East India Company. But eventually it was reduced to warehouses before scheduled for demolition (and no doubt inclusion in my book) in 1908.

Realising its importance as the most precious medieval survivor in the Square Mile the entire building was moved brick by brick to Chelsea and after much soul searching into what should become of its use it was leased to the British Federation of University Women who promptly built an Arts and Crafts residential block at right angles to the building’s Great Hall.

In 1988 the freehold was bought by Christopher Moran an enthusiastic – and rich – lover of all things Tudor who had already spent 20 years thinking about the Hall. Seven years were than consumed obtaining the relevant planning permissions and if you think your kitchen extension was a nightmare have a thought for Christopher Moran who has since 1995 employed up to 100 specialist builders with the help of dozens of Tudor scholars on his project creating an 85 room house, built exactly as Tudor craftsmen would have done over 500 years ago.

For the £50 million it is estimated to cost he gets a courtyard garden designed by the Marchioness of Salisbury based on her own garden at Hatfield House surrounding a Tudor fountain to the goddess Diana, that itself took more than three years to create. Facing the River are solid oak doors weighing 3 tonnes, The College of Arms have devised for him a coat of arms to surmount the doors. The lost art of double-struck pointing has been mastered in order to ensure that the new brickwork looks exactly as it would have done when Sir John Crosby moved in and a house – well fit for a king.

Simon Thurley, Director of English Heritage has written a more detailed account of Crosby Hall which originally was published in Country Life magazine.

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 12th July 2013

Cowford Lodge

Every month CabbieBlog hopes to show you a little gem of a building which you might have passed without noticing.

The building this month is passed unnoticed by thousands of cabbies every day.

[O]VERLOOKED AS IT IS BY ITS MORE FAMOUS SIBLING, there are not many buildings that have stood the test of time while remaining as useless as Cowford Lodge. When in 1913 Sir Aston Webb refaced Buckingham Palace in Portland Stone cleverly anticipating that the Red Arrows would one day fly down the Mall and therefore a balcony would be needed by the Royal Family to view the spectacle, it was a triumph of useful design. That cannot be said of Cowford Lodge which stands opposite in Spur Road.

In the Middle Ages, Buckingham Palace’s site formed part of the Manor of Ebury. The marshy ground was watered by the river Tyburn, which still flows below the courtyard and south wing of the palace. Where the river was fordable (at Cow Ford), the village of Eye Cross grew. Now standing at that crossing point of one of London’s lost rivers is our little gem of a building and it was only 10 years ago that the lodge was given a name by The Earl of Snowdon – Cow-ford Lodge.

The Oxford English Dictionary definition of lodge is:

Small house . . . Cottage at gates of park or grounds of large house occupied by gardener or other servant . . . porter’s room at gate of college, factory, or house of chambers or flats.

Thought to date about 1911 or 1912 it was probably thrown up with the leftover bricks from building Admiralty Arch. Compact yet massive, impressively monolithic, yet somehow apparently invisible to passers-by, it make little sense as an actual lodge for Buckingham Palace or St. James’s Park for it is in the wrong position. Any guard function seems similarly unlikely for it is just as clearly in the wrong place for the sentry box.

Cowford-1Grade II* listed and described by English Heritage as lodge (there is that name again), piers, gates and railings. 1900-01, by Sir Aston Webb as part of his Victoria Memorial-Mall-Buckingham Palace ‘rond point’ design. Portland stone lodge and piers with cast iron gates and railings. Ornate Beaux Arts detailing. Single storey, segmental pedimented lodge flanked by tall pairs of pedestrian gates and ball finialed panelled piers set on island at junction of Birdcage Walk and Buckingham Palace . . .

Suggestions have ranged from it once being a police post, prompting conspiracy theorists to propose a more sinister alternative as a hidden portal into the hidden network of secret escape tunnels, connecting the Palace to various government agencies.

Or it could be just a very ornate garden shed.

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 2nd August 2013

Marie Colvin’s church

Most of us would derive some amusement from watching a wedding cake disaster on YouTube – well as long as it wasn’t our own – but for the inspiration of the tiered wedding cake that we know today it is no laughing matter.

[T]he extraordinary tiered spire of St. Bride’s Church just off Fleet Street was used by a local baker, a certain Mr. Rich, as the inspiration for the bridal cake design that we now take for granted. St. Bride’s didn’t get its name from the cake; the cake design copied the church spire and made the baker rich in more than just name.

Now the church spire is starting to collapse and the building has become so precarious that an appeal called INSPIRE has been formed for crucial maintenance.

Designed by Christopher Wren

The present building is probably the seventh St. Brides to stand on the site dating back to the 7th century and is one of only six churches that Wren is believed to have worked on alone: St Martin Ludgate, St Antholin Budge Row (which is now demolished), the incomparable St Stephen Walbrook, St Clement Danes, St Mary-Le-Bow and St Bride’s.

St. BridesSt. Bride’s Church’s famous spire was added in 1701-1703 and originally measured 234ft but in 1764 a lighting strike knocked off the upper 8ft.

This section was bought by the owners of Park Place, Berkshire, where it still resides.

The estate of Park Place was recently sold for a reported £140 million and also featured in the St. Trinian’s film.

Benjamin Franklin’s conductor

Presumably in an effort to stop the steeple being damaged again, the surviving spire has a lightening conductor designed and fitted by the American republican and inventor Benjamin Franklin (he was also a printer), but only after a row about whether American blunt-ended conductors or British pointed-end conductors should be used. I haven’t as yet climbed to the top to find out who won the debate.

Printer Wynkyn de Worde set up his first press beside the church and diarist Samuel Pepys was baptised there and was a regular member of the congregation. The church’s association with printing and journalism go back to the times that Fleet Street was the centre of Britain’s newspaper industry.

But where news gather Reuters former building has a sparkling clean stone frontage, St. Brides, lying just behind, stands mouldering away, with cracks appearing inside and out, with many of its lions’ heads and other grotesques high on the spire eroding almost unrecognisable and in danger of falling to the pavement.

Despite previous restoration efforts, St Bride’s has faced major problems since the Second World War. In 1940 it was almost completely destroyed by German bombs. The roof was lost, as was the original interior, and a long-sealed crypt was blown open. The bodies found there are now objects of study for the Museum of London. In the basement of the church today are the skeletons of hundreds of medieval Londoners, lying beneath the new concrete foundations.

The Fourth Estate

As the journalists’ church, St. Bride’s is a poignant reminder of the profession’s connection with Fleet Street and the importance of the Fourth Estate. An altar in the north aisle commemorates journalists who lost their lives in the line of duty.

Marie Colvin

Marie Colvin who died in the Syrian city of Homs made this speech at St. Bride’s on 10th November, 2010 on the importance of war reporting:

Your Royal Highness, ladies and gentlemen, I am honoured and humbled to be speaking to you at this service tonight to remember the journalists and their support staff who gave their lives to report from the war zones of the 21st century. I have been a war correspondent for most of my professional life. It has always been a hard calling. But the need for frontline, objective reporting has never been more compelling.

Covering a war means going to places torn by chaos, destruction and death, and trying to bear witness. It means trying to find the truth in a sandstorm of propaganda when armies, tribes or terrorists clash. And yes, it means taking risks, not just for yourself but often for the people who work closely with you.

Despite all the videos you see from the Ministry of Defence or the Pentagon, and all the sanitised language describing smart bombs and pinpoint strikes, the scene on the ground has remained remarkably the same for hundreds of years. Craters. Burned houses. Mutilated bodies. Women weeping for children and husbands. Men for their wives, mothers children.

Our mission is to report these horrors of war with accuracy and without prejudice. We always have to ask ourselves whether the level of risk is worth the story. What is bravery, and what is bravado?

Journalists covering combat shoulder great responsibilities and face difficult choices. Sometimes they pay the ultimate price. Tonight we honour the 49 journalists and support staff who were killed bringing the news to our shores. We also remember journalists around the world who have been wounded, maimed or kidnapped and held hostage for months. It has never been more dangerous to be a war correspondent, because the journalist in the combat zone has become a prime target.

I lost my eye in an ambush in the Sri Lankan civil war. I had gone to the northern Tamil area from which journalists were banned and found an unreported humanitarian disaster. As I was smuggled back across the internal border, a soldier launched a grenade at me and the shrapnel sliced into my face and chest. He knew what he was doing.

Just last week, I had a coffee in Afghanistan with a photographer friend, Joao Silva. We talked about the terror one feels and must contain when patrolling on an embed with the armed forces through fields and villages in Afghanistan … putting one foot in front of the other, steeling yourself each step for the blast. The expectation of that blast is the stuff of nightmares. Two days after our meeting, Joao stepped on a mine and lost both legs at the knee.

Many of you here must have asked yourselves, or be asking yourselves now, is it worth the cost in lives, heartbreak, loss? Can we really make a difference?

I faced that question when I was injured. In fact one paper ran a headline saying, has Marie Colvin gone too far this time? My answer then, and now, was that it is worth it.

Today in this church are friends, colleagues and families who know exactly what I am talking about, and bear the cost of those experiences, as do their families and loved ones.

Today we must also remember how important it is that news organisations continue to invest in sending us out at great cost, both financial and emotional, to cover stories.

We go to remote war zones to report what is happening. The public have a right to know what our government, and our armed forces, are doing in our name. Our mission is to speak the truth to power. We send home that first rough draft of history. We can and do make a difference in exposing the horrors of war and especially the atrocities that befall civilians.

The history of our profession is one to be proud of. The first war correspondent in the modern era was William Howard Russell of the Times, who was sent to cover the Crimean conflict when a British-led coalition fought an invading Russian army.

Billy Russell, as the troops called him, created a firestorm of public indignation back home by revealing inadequate equipment, scandalous treatment of the wounded, especially when they were repatriated – does this sound familiar? – and an incompetent high command that led to the folly of the Charge of the Light Brigade. It was a breakthrough in war reporting. Until then, wars were reported by junior officers who sent back dispatches to newspapers. Billy Russell went to war with an open mind, a telescope, a notebook and a bottle of brandy. I first went to war with a typewriter, and learned to tap out a telex tape. It could take days to get from the front to a telephone or telex machine.

War reporting has changed greatly in just the last few years. Now we go to war with a satellite phone, laptop, video camera and a flak jacket. I point my satellite phone to south southwest in Afghanistan, press a button and I have filed.

In an age of 24/7 rolling news, blogs and Twitters, we are on constant call wherever we are. But war reporting is still essentially the same – someone has to go there and see what is happening. You can’t get that information without going to places where people are being shot at, and others are shooting at you. The real difficulty is having enough faith in humanity to believe that enough people be they government, military or the man on the street, will care when your file reaches the printed page, the website or the TV screen.

We do have that faith because we believe we do make a difference.

And we could not make that difference – or begin to do our job – without the fixers, drivers and translators, who face the same risks and die in appalling numbers. Today we honour them as much as the front line journalists who have died in pursuit of the truth. They have kept the faith as we who remain must continue to do.

It is a monument to a city in flux, retaining the memory of the great press men and women who once made Fleet Street a unique place. St. Bride’s must be saved. Support the appeal and preserve one of London’s greatest buildings.

To find out more about the INSPIRE! appeal or to donate, visit www.stbrides.com/inspire

Featured image: Marie Colvin by Democracy Now (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 US)

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 2nd March 2012