Tag Archives: London’s buildings

London has no edges

For a building built 50 years ago, the BT Tower looks remarkably modern, entering the generous foyer it could be any number of offices that proliferate in this corner of Fitzrovia.

It’s only when reaching the central core you realise the structure’s uniqueness. For running up its centre is that only means of reaching the viewing platform, and the only viable way of escaping in the event of a fire.

Seldom seen outside expensive hotels and department stores a lift attendant is on duty as you rise silently at 1,400 ft. per minute as the counter proudly shows. He is also there to help evacuate the building, the only structure in Great Britain allowed using the lift as a fire escape

Lift-speed_thumb The reason I was ascending up the most iconic building in London was as a guest of Secret Spaces. It was the sort of access that Google once gave to their Google City Experts encouraging its members to write high-quality local business ratings and reviews on the lamented Google+, rewarding members who had left at least 50 reviews to date, and who produced at least five new reviews each month. ­

The program took advantage of an old Internet rule which states that only a small group of so-called ‘creators’ generate most of the content on the web, while the majority just consumes what others have produced. These requirements are meant to guard against spammers and others who may be encouraged to write a few reviews in return for free stuff.

BT Tower-2 After a welcome drink we were given a talk about the changing cities by Leo Hollis, who stated that at the beginning of the century we became 50 per cent urban as a global population, by 2050 Hollis reckons urban population will be up to 70 per cent. From that he extrapolates that by the end of the century virtually the entire world’s population will be urban. So up is the only way to develop our urban living and what better place to present those views that at the BT Tower?

This was followed by a short talk of the Tower’s construction and history by BT’s archivist David Hay, who explained that the Tower is now redundant and used only for promotional work. An amazing image of London taken from the top of the BT Tower has set a new record for the world’s largest panoramic photo. The image shows a full 360 degree view of London in incredible detail.

We arrived at the famous revolving restaurant platform which takes 22 minutes to complete its circuit. It was closed in 1980 due to security fears. At the time many diners said that eating while being spun round was disconcerting. Being the highest building in Fitzrovia it has unrestricted views across London, from Crystal Palace in the south to beyond Wembley Stadium in the north.

As a so-called ‘City Expert’ much of London looks so different from 600ft. in fact, I needed help identifying many buildings that I only have known from the vantage point of my cab. From the BT Tower London has no edges for, as Leo Hollis predicts, urbanisation stretches for as far as the eye can see.

Pictures: Aiming At The Sky – London BT Tower; BT Tower (Post Office Tower) – London Skyline by Simon and his Camera (CC BY-ND 3.0)

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 25th March 2014

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

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