Tag Archives: London’s buildings

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

Avoid idleness and intemperance

In 1837 a young woman found herself the monarch of her country, she remained Queen during an unprecedented time of burgeoning industry and wealth creation, giving her name to the 64 years she reigned and a time Britain was at its zenith of influence and power. That same year a novel was printed which would change a country’s attitude to the most poor and venerable, that novel was the second major work by Charles Dickens.

[C]HARLES DICKENS was no stranger to poverty. In 1823 when his father lost his job and was sent to Marshalsea debtor’s prison 11-year-old Charles worked in a blacking factory pasting labels on shoe polish bottled for six shillings a week. At that time he also certainly worked alongside children from the workhouse, it was an experience that would remain with him all his life and be the subject of his novel Oliver Twist.

In 1834 a Poor Law was enacted, with the sole purpose of discouraging claiming relief in times of poverty and forcing individuals to take work offered to them however low the pay. Welfare assistance was only available inside the workhouse, once admitted the unfortunate inmates would be deloused and forced to wear uniforms, families were broken up and if individuals were capable of working they would be sent to labour for unscrupulous employers. The very young, ill or old who were unable to produce an income were in most cases refused admission to the workhouse and starved to death.

In a fascinating piece of research Dr. Ruth Richardson has established the source material for Oliver Twist which tells the story of the illegitimate orphan Oliver who endures a miserable time at the workhouse and during his parish apprenticeship with an undertaker, before running away and being taken in by a gang of juvenile pickpockets.

It was known that Charles Dickens lived in a certain Norfolk Street twice in his early life for a period of four years. Dr. Richardson has established that Norfolk Street once was the southern continuation of Cleveland Street which exists today and that Dickens lived only nine doors away from the Cleveland Street workhouse ending years of speculation by historians to the exact location of Dickens’s childhood home.

Cleveland Street Workhouse was constructed in about 1780 on what at that time was a burial ground. Starting life as the parish workhouse for St. Paul’s, Covent Garden in 1836 its functioned as an infirmary, maternity unit, insane asylum or a place to deposit those suffering from highly contagious diseases.

Even by workhouse standards 44 Cleveland Street was dreadful, a contemporary account by Dr. Joseph Rogers the chief medical officer at the workhouse from 1856-68, reported: a laundry in the basement filling the dining hall with foul-smelling steam; carpets regularly beaten directly outside the men’s infirmary; the nursery both damp and overcrowded; “nursing” provided only by elderly female inmates, many of whom were apparently habitually drunk; the brutal indifference of the Guardians of the workhouse; the “dead house” adjoins the main structure. This led him to campaign for better standards in the medical care available to workhouse inhabitants.

After the Poor Law was reformed the Cleveland Street Workhouse passed first into the control of the Central London Sick Asylums District, then to the Middlesex Hospital and thence to University College London Hospital complex. Closing in 2006 when UCLH have moved all their services onto a single unified site.

The building is believed to be London’s only existing purpose built Georgian workhouse, a rare example of social engineering from the 19th century; now after a five-year long campaign the most famous workhouse in the world has been saved thanks to its Grade II listing.

Without it would Charles Dickens have written so passionately his most successful novel and then spent a lifetime campaigning for better welfare to be given to the poor? Now 44 Cleveland Street has been given Heritage listing we have an opportunity to convert this rare Georgian building into flats whilst keeping its integrity, and use some of that income to provide a teaching and resource centre at the very heart of social and welfare reform that has benefitted us all today.

In an echo of Dachau with its sign “arbeit macht frei” (works brings freedom), above the gates of the Cleveland Street Workhouse was a statute of an old man pointing to the words: “Avoid idleness and intemperance”, as with Dachau, 22 Cleveland Street’s importance to our lives should not be forgotten.

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 22nd April 2011

Site Unseen: Talgarth Road

Every month CabbieBlog hopes to show you a little gem of a building that you might have passed without noticing, in the past, they have ranged from a modernist car park; a penguin pool; to a Hanoverian gatehouse.

You have probably seen this short row of houses as you sit in the interminable 24-hour traffic that travels along the Talgarth Road, the artery which connects Central London with Heathrow.

[J]UST NEAR TO Barons Court Underground Station is a row of eight Arts and Crafts-era artists’ studios that stand out majestically with their soaring chimneys and red-brick and terracotta exteriors, with their enormous windows they are simply breathtaking (in looks as well as price, with number 135 an end-terrace sold for £1.3 million).

The double-story windows are north facing to fill the rooms with constant diffused light, the quality of that light does not change as the sun moves, making painting and drawing considerably easier.

[B]uilt in 1891 for bachelor artists, St. Paul’s Studios are based on a house that once stood at number 151; it was here that Pre-Raphaelite painter Sir Edward Burne-Jones painted his last canvas.

The studio of these houses are on the first floor and measure a wapping 30ft. long x 22ft. wide with a 20ft. high ceiling, with a vast window dominating the room at the front of the house, it was this window which once overlooked the playing fields of St. Paul’s School, now moved to Barnes, it now looks on to the A4 dual carriageway. Beneath each property is a scullery, kitchen and a bedroom in the basement for the housekeeper.

Given a Grade II listing in 1970 a number of well known people from the arts have occupied these studios, including Dame Margot Fonteyn who lived at the end of this small block once known as Colet Gardens when the area was full of Bohemian artists and was very different from what it is now.

If you want a detailed look at these fascinating houses, which none other than Sir Roy Strong ex-director of the V&A and National Portrait Gallery once nominated as his favourite buildings in London, describing them as an “Eruption of joy”, Remember the Window has interior shots and a detailed description of the surrounding area.


A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 4th December 2012

Building site lines

Ask Londoners what their favourite building would be and they’ll probably say St. Paul’s Cathedral. With this in mind the capital’s favourite has been protected by a series of sightlines for decades.

During its construction I watched a television programme about the design of the Leadenhall Building, or Cheesegrater to you and me, and was impressed by architect’s consideration in saving the silhouette of St. Paul’s.

[W]hen viewed from Fleet Street his building’s distinctive slanted shape didn’t impinge on St. Paul’s, I was left with the impression that the decision had been voluntary, preserving London from becoming a copy of downtown Dubai. [Below St. Paul’s from Fleet Street before and after]



It took the excellent American website devoted to lovers of London – Londontopia – to point me in the direction of a short video about the statutory requirement planners have to adhere to when designing London’s buildings.

The New London Model now on display at the Building Centre with touch screens allowing buildings and major infrastructure projects to be brought to life across the surface of the model shows the key areas of change and revealing the sheer scale of proposed development in the capital.

It hopes to explain how the capital’s building regulations have prevented the visual clutter obscuring or degrading the view of St. Paul’s from well-known landmarks around London. Unfortunately these fine ideals called the Abercrombie Plan which featured in Andrew Marr’s BBC documentary Britain from Above have been watered down to the point of no return.

As each world-famous architect strives to put a permanent marker as his legacy on the capital the visual importance of St. Paul’s, and to a lesser extent the Houses of Parliament, is diminished.

When the Abercrombie Plan was first mooted London was being re-built after the Blitz. No one could have imagined today’s brilliant engineering which has made it possible to build these astonishing structures. Unfortunately London’s skyline has not benefitted.

Photo: By .Martin. Inside the New London Architecture, The Building Centre, 26 Store Street, London (CC BY-ND 2.0)

A pilgrim returned

Nestled in a Kent valley is one of the most romantic houses to be found near London.

Situated just outside the M25 near the charmingly named hamlet of Ivy Hatch, this substantial property is virtually unseen from the road.

Ightham Mote (pronounced “Item Moot”) is a rare example of a medieval moated manor house that the National Trust has spent 10 years and £10 million restoring.

[Y]ou approach Ightham by walking down a steep slope which gives the opportunity to see the building from above, an experience unique in my experience.

Walking over the moat via a small bridge takes you into the enclosed courtyard. The first thing you notice is the only Grade I listed dog kennel in England standing over 6ft high it was constructed for a female St. Bernard called Dido in 1880.


First built in 1320 with few changes to the main structure after completion of the quadrangle and chapel in the 16th century Ightham Mote has been owned by medieval knights, courtiers to Henry VIII and high society Victorians.

This remarkable survivor of medieval architecture was by 1951 in a poor condition when James Colyer-Fergusson inherited the house and because of lack of finances he was left no option but to sell the house and auction most of the contents.

A sale took place in October and lasted three days. It was suggested that the house be demolished to harvest the lead on the roofs, or be divided into flats. Three local men banded together to save the house purely for love of it and paid £5,500 for the freehold, confident that some other, richer, benefactor would emerge.

The house would find its benefactor in what is probably the most endearing story of this remarkable building.

American businessman, Charles Henry Robinson of Portland Maine had seen the house as a younger man on a cycling holiday and returned in 1953 older, and richer, with the intention of buying it, but changed his mind on the journey home.

Amongst family papers in Portland was found the ’Letter of Withdrawal’, a letter drafted on the Queen Mary liner by Robinson as he was returning home stating that he had changed his mind about buying Ightham Mote. However, because the ship’s Post Office was closed, the letter was never sent, and Robinson reconsidered and sent an offer for the house. The letter is now in the Ightham Mote library.

Robinson, a bachelor, lived at Ightham until his death and using what funds he could spare managed to keep the building barely habitable, but at least it was safe from developers.

In the Mote’s crypt there is a memorial plaque, with the inscription ‘A Pilgrim Returned’. Robinson’s grandmother, Emily Cobb, was descended, via two different lines, from those who had sailed on the Mayflower.

A collection with interesting detail of how Ightham Mote looked before restoration can be found here. The restoration, which has for me been fascinating to monitor the progress; not that any of the work is immediately visible can be seen in a Time Team documentary [below] and the house has a small exhibition demonstrating the methods used in the restoration.


Dog kennel at Ightham Mote by Oast House Archive CC BY-SA 2.0
Main Picture: ©The South side of Ightham Mote from my own collection.