In which The Author makes it up as he goes along
On Tuesday I made another of my semi-regular visits to London. Unlike my previous trips, I didn’t have anything specific in mind this time. That turned out to be a good thing, as nothing went quite according to plan.
When my alarm went off at 5.00 it was pitch dark, and the rain (which had started the previous evening) was still hammering down outside. For a minute I was tempted to say ‘Fuck it!’ and go back to sleep. Then I realised that I’d only had about half an hour’s sleep anyway, so I might as well get up.
I had a quick bath and listened to the early weather forecast while I ate breakfast. The south-east of England could expect heavy showers in the evening, apparently, while South Wales had experienced ‘showers’ overnight. (Showers? Yeah, right!)
When I did venture outside, just before 6.00, the rain had actually stopped. I walked through Robertstown and got to the station just before quarter past. The train was already in, and I grabbed some shut-eye once I’d bought my ticket. I got into bad habits when I was commuting to Cardiff, sleeping on the train there and back a lot, and my sleep routine hasn’t been right since. I jumped off at Cathays and made my way to the bus stop just opposite the station entrance. I was the first person there, so I read a few pages of my book before the coach arrived. It was a few minutes later than scheduled, and that turned out to be the order of the day.
Last time I travelled up, it was the first week of the school holidays and the weather was glorious. I’d been fairly confident of arriving at Earls Court before eleven, as I did last time, and making it to the Wetherspoon pub in Hammersmith in good time for second breakfast.
I was given some discount vouchers a few weeks ago, and they’ve been burning a hole in my pocket since. Since a breakfast for £2.69 represents particularly good value for London, I’d tucked the vouchers into my bag before setting off.
I don’t know if the adverse weather had affected the traffic flow, or if the journey into London was hampered by other factors. We made pretty decent progress until we reached Slough, but crawled the rest of the way. We eventually reached the stop ‘near’ Earls Court a full hour later than last time.
Luckily for me, the rain had stayed away, so I walked back towards North End Road. I was on the right side of the road to check out the very complex railway interchange hereabouts. If I ever get the money to restart work on my model railway, it’ll probably look something like this.
I topped up my Oyster card at West Kensington Tube station and caught a 329 bus to Hammersmith.
(Incidentally, I’ve just received a survey from National Express, asking for feedback on my recent journey. I’ve suggested that dropping off at Hammersmith, where there’s a Tube station and a major bus interchange, rather than on the A4 – where there’s nothing – would probably be much for convenient for passengers. Let’s see what they make of that!)
By the time I reached the William Morris, breakfast was long past and the lunch menu was in full swing. I used a different voucher and got a veggie burger, chips and a pint of lager for only £3.99. You’ll be lucky to buy a pint for four quid in London, so I was quite happy with that. When I checked my receipt, it seemed that the voucher was part of a ‘student promotion’ scheme. It’s good to know I can still pass for a student.
Fed and watered, I headed back to the bus station and jumped on a number 10, heading for Kings Cross. I was aiming for Goodge Street, from where I could head across Bloomsbury to the British Museum. This was the second public transport SNAFU of the day.
The bus made reasonable progress through Kensington High Street and Knightsbridge, went up Park Lane in fits and starts, rounded Marble Arch, and then inched its way along before grinding to a halt entirely near Oxford Circus. I don’t know many times the traffic lights in front of us cycled from green to red and back again, before we made it past them and into the next stretch of nose-to-tail traffic. I grew accustomed to the stop-start progress of London buses back in the old days, but I’d never seen anything like this.
Then again, I was on the upper deck, so I was able to check out thousands of gorgeous women from all parts of the world as they strolled past. It would certainly have been far quicker to jump off and walk the length of Oxford Street, but I’d have missed the unofficial Miss World contest going on below. Swings and roundabouts.
I’d also have missed out on seeing the reason for the hold-up: the latest phase of the £15 billion Crossrail project, redeveloping Tottenham Court Road station. I was able to grab some decent photos from my vantage point high above the safety barriers. I dare say it’ll be nice when it’s finished.
There was another massive building site on the north side of Oxford Street, too, but that turned out to be nothing to do with Crossrail. Rather disappointingly, it’s going to be part of a new Primark store.
We eventually reached Goodge Street and I headed straight to Torrington Place. The flagship Dillons bookshop opened here, way back in the 1930s, and it’s still closely associated with the University of London and University College Hospital. I thought I’d call in and check out the new academic stock, just for old times’ sake.
The prices of textbooks had been shooting up for a couple of years before I left the trade in 2009. Now they’ve gone through the roof. For example, I looked at Rang and Dale’s Pharmacology, and it was nearly fifty quid! That was one of the cheaper books I glanced at. The long-awaited third edition of The Art of Electronics will set you back nearly sixty quid. (When I say ‘long-awaited’, it had assumed almost mythical status by the time I finished work. As with the Messiah or the Twelfth Imam, a lot of people had begun to wonder if it would ever materialise.) Having had a foot in both camps, I can see why students tend to look for second-hand editions, or buy online. On the other hand, you have to wonder just how many thousands of pounds’ worth of sales Waterstones has thrown away over the years, simply by choosing to neglect the huge student market.
I was glad to see that the latest editions of Molecular Biology of the Cell
by Alberts et al, and their cooked-down Essential Cell Biology
, have continued the tradition of the authors recreating Beatles’ LP covers, as I told you in Adventures in the Book Trade (Part 9)
. The current editions are clever pastiches of the A Hard Day’s Night
cover and the famous ‘balcony shot’ of the Fab Four. Who says scientists don’t have a sense of humour, eh?
Back in the fresh air, I found my way to the rear entrance of the British Museum, heading (I thought) for the new exhibition on Celtic art. Then I spotted a small poster on the wall outside. It didn’t actually open until Thursday. At least I’ve got an excuse to pay another visit soon.
I made my way to the Egyptian gallery again, and this time I found the Rosetta Stone. I’d missed it last time because it had been surrounded by hundreds of sightseers. It’s much smaller than I’d imagined, too. I wandered past some more incredible statues and pieces of wall art before heading for the gift shop. Rhian and Steff have just moved in together, so I picked up a little housewarming present for them.
Back in the daylight, I walked along Museum Street to the famous Atlantis Bookshop. It’s often been described as the home of British magick, and I wanted to have a browse around inside. The window was full of books on arcane subjects, and just inside the door was a bulletin board full of ads for meetings, talks, events, and workshops. The shelves were crammed with books on all manner of obscure topics, and I could have spent a lot of money given half a chance.
I came across two volumes of Robert Anton Wilson’s Historical Illuminatus trilogy, a couple of books by Timothy Leary, a whole raft of books by or about Aleister Crowley and Austin Osman Spare, and some eye-catching books on ‘forbidden archaeology’ and UFOs. I couldn’t help thinking about my old friend Carl Blewitt, and reflecting on how much he’d have loved to spend a couple of hours browsing in Atlantis.
On the way out I checked the bulletin board again, and noticed a poster for a conference about William Blake. I should have known then that a spate of weird psychogeographical synchronicities were about to kick off (see Limehouse Blues and Twos
). I walked as far as Bloomsbury Way and straight away stumbled across St George’s Church. It’s another of Nicholas Hawksmoor’s designs, needless to say. Unfortunately it’s too big to try and photograph in one go, especially with heavy traffic passing in both directions. These’ll have to do for now.
Just to complete the triangle, I’d only walked for another few moments when I spotted this in a side street.
Once again, my random wanderings through the side streets of London had managed to connect William Blake, his spiritual guru Emanuel Swedenborg, and Nicholas Hawksmoor, the anti-hero of Peter Ackroyd’s eponymous novel – a bizarre triangle if ever there was one.
I’d only walked a little bit further when I came across a small gang of guys in high-vis gear, directing traffic past a building site in the middle of the road. It turned out to be another part of the Crossrail scheme – but look at the railway tracks leading into this mysterious subterranean passageway. They weren’t laid yesterday, were they? This access portal to the underground railway probably dates from the early days of the cut-and-cover system. I’d have loved to get closer to it, but I settled for a photo instead, after explaining to one of the guys that I was interested in railway engineering. He very kindly told me go ahead. That doesn’t happen often.
Not far from there I found a nice piece of street art left over from the 2012 Olympics. It was a ceramic tile, cemented onto the side of a building after being decorated.
I walked along Theobald’s Road as far as the northern entrance to Gray’s Inn Gardens. Then I stopped to try and get my bearings. Even though I’d taken my trusty A-Z with me, I don’t like to consult it in the street; it makes me feel like a tourist (or a murder suspect in an episode of Sherlock). To try and make things easier for visitors, London is dotted with little ‘You are here’ posts, each of which indicate a five-minute walking radius from your current location and a fifteen-minute stroll on a less detailed map.
Unfortunately, they’ve obviously been designed with the satnav generation in mind. Instead of having north at the top (in common with 99.9% of maps made since the Middle Ages), they seem to be oriented as though you were facing in the direction of travel.
I consulted one of these ‘handy’ posts and found that (according to the little map) Gray’s Inn Road runs from left to right. I knew full well that it’s aligned approximately north-south, so I ignored the map and headed off along Gray’s Inn Road by dead reckoning instead.
I arrived at High Holborn a couple of minutes later, and was greeted by a pair of the strange dragon-like figures which guard the portals of the City of London. I’m not going to go too far down the David Icke ‘reptilian’ route here, but it’s difficult to walk around the City of London without wondering about the occult symbolism you find everywhere. One day I’ll take a proper walk around with my camera and see how many things I can spot for myself. Maybe I could start work on a kids’ book called I-Spy Occult, Masonic and Satanic Conspiracies.
Most of the City of London was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666, of course, and the majority of the old buildings date from the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. There was a second wave of devastation during World War II, and it was substantially rebuilt in the 1950s and 1960s; a third phase of demolition and rebuilding got under way in the 1980s, and is still going on. Everywhere you look there are cranes towering above the skyline as architects and developers vie to outdo their rivals down the road. That’s probably why I was so surprised to see this fantastic half-timbered structure next to Staple Inn.
Just opposite it is the astonishing frontage of the Prudential Building. It’s actually much longer than this, but I couldn’t fit the whole thing into the frame.
I was only a minute or so from Holborn Circus, which was my next destination. To tell the truth, the place I was actually heading for is even more peculiar than half the things in the City of London combined.
This is the entrance to Ely Place, which isn’t technically part of the City of London. It’s an enclave of the Diocese of Cambridge, which I first heard about several years ago (and I thought at the time it was a joke). Then I read about it in Vitali Vitaliev’s entertaining book Passport to Enclavia. He starts his book in Ye Olde Mitre Tavern, and explains the strange history behind this obscure corner of London. St Ethelreda’s Church, which nestles halfway up this little cul-de-sac, was built as a chapel of ease for the Bishop of Ely when he was visiting the Smoke. Consequently the land stayed in the possession of the church, and apparently the whole place remains outside the jurisdiction of the City of London Police. Mr Vitaliev had started his journey around Europe’s enclaves in this most unusual of London streets.
I made a mental note to try and find it when I had the chance. On Tuesday I found Ely Place without any trouble, but the pub was more elusive. I walked the length of the street, wondering whether it was concealed behind one of the grand frontages. The church was tucked away between two large buildings, but there was no sign of a pub.
At the far end of the street I came to a wooden gate, and stepped through it to see if the pub was tucked away behind it. Instead, I found myself in the even more cunningly concealed Bleeding Heart Yard. It takes its name from the pub at the other end, on the corner of Greville Street. There’s a restaurant here, and a couple of buildings seem to be homes to offices. If it hadn’t been for my research before setting off, I’d never have even suspected it was there.
The Bleeding Heart was all very well, but it wasn’t Ye Old Mitre Tavern. I wondered for a moment if Mr Vitaliev had been pulling his readers’ legs. I walked back into Ely Place and checked out each building carefully. They were all fairly nondescript offices. I was about to concede defeat and ask the chap at the gatehouse for help. Then I passed a tiny alleyway between two buildings and heard cheerful voices coming from the far end. I know the sound of a pub crowd only too well, so I walked up the alley. A group of smartly-dressed City types were standing outside the pub, holding pint glasses and chatting. I made my way into the remarkably small lounge, where two middle-aged women were sitting in one corner, a bearded chap in a suit was using a laptop in the other corner, and a shaven-headed guy in an Iron Maiden T-shirt was sitting at a table in the middle. It was my kind of place.
I was greeted by a friendly barmaid who reminded me of my friend Josie, and had a quick look at the range on offer. I erred on the side of caution and ordered a half of Kronenbourg. £2.05 isn’t bad for London. I explained to the barmaid that I’d read about the pub in Passport to Enclavia, and she was quite surprised that I’d made a special journey to check it out. They had a decent selection of real ales, and I decided to text Rowland to tell him about my discovery. (He spends a lot of time in London, and likes to check out new pubs.)
I also texted Gaz, who borrowed Passport to Enclavia from my Lending Library a while back, to tell him where I was. Needless to say, he’d beaten me to it – he’d stopped in for a couple of pints on his way back from Israel earlier this year. The exterior was too small to photograph, but the interior was full of character and crammed with pub memorabilia.
The pub was starting to fill up (which didn’t take a lot), and time was getting on. I finished my drink and headed outside. Back in the alley, I turned right instead of left, walked for a short distance, and emerged in the middle of Hatton Garden. I wonder how many thousands of people pass this tiny gap between jewellers’ shops every week and never suspect that there’s a pub within easy staggering distance. It’s an old-school City pub, too – only open from Monday to Friday. I’ll definitely be going back next time I’m in town.
I returned to Holborn Circus and made my way east. A minute later, quite by accident, I found myself on top of Holborn Viaduct. Built in the 1860s, it was designed to span the valley of the Fleet and make it easier for horse-drawn traffic to enter the City. It’s a very busy road now, and there are some great statues on either side, representing the four elements on which London’s wealth was built: Science, Commerce, Agriculture and Fine Art. (Needless to say, the dragons are there too.) I only photographed two of the statues before heading down a flight of wide stone steps into Farringdon Road. You get the idea, though.
I’d accidentally found myself at the site of the original Smithfield Market. It’s in a sorry state now, and there doesn’t seem to be any work in progress on it. I found a builder’s notice on a nearby building, but the old market hall is slowly falling apart. Just across the road is the new Smithfield Market, the main meat wholesaler in London. I’ve been a vegetarian since 1987, so I was quite relieved to find that they’d closed up for the day. I took a short cut through the covered hall, where I found another war memorial to add to my collection.
I emerged at Farringdon Tube station, which has retained its original frontage and looks pretty impressive.
I was really just following my nose by this point. I knew that if I headed down Farringdon Street, I’d eventually arrive at Blackfriars and the Thames. I’d completely forgotten that Ludgate Circus is in the middle. When I arrived there, I had a choice of three routes: south, to the river; west, along Fleet Street and into The Strand; or east, up the gentle rise of Ludgate Hill to one of London’s most distinctive and impressive buildings. I went east.
I’ve seen it before, of course, but St Paul’s Cathedral still manages to take my breath away. It’s not just that its sheer size staggers your imagination; it’s also a stupendous piece of architecture and engineering. I’ve never been inside, but that doesn’t matter. Its colossal dome, towering over the massive structure and topped with a cupola which itself was a daring and visionary piece of engineering, is one of the things that the word ‘London’ immediately brings to mind. Even though it’s surrounded by some of the bravest pieces of modern architecture, they don’t detract from the magnificence of St Paul’s.
In a BBC book called Spirit of the Age, published in the 1970s, the architectural historian Sir John Summerson states that nobody alive has seen St Paul’s in the way that Sir Christopher Wren intended – totally dominating the skyline of the city. That may have been true forty years ago, but now the southern aspect is pretty much unobstructed (apart from the occasional bus, of course).
When nearby Paternoster Square was listed for redevelopment, HRH Prince Charles memorably weighed into the argument. That spoke volumes about the importance of St Paul’s, not just a place of worship but as a piece of our national heritage. It’s an enduring symbol of London, and undeniably one of the West’s most recognisable and iconic buildings. It’s little short of a miracle that it survived the Blitz almost without a scratch.
It’s almost impossible to get a sense of scale from these photos. You really do need to see it for yourself to appreciate just how vast it is.
As well as his most famous work, there are numerous other Wren churches peppered throughout the City. Everywhere you turn you can see a spire poking up from among the tightly packed buildings. You have to wonder just how many people lived here back in the day, to need so many churches in a relatively compact area.
A short distance from St Paul’s is the National Firefighters’ Memorial. It’s an impressive bronze sculpture of three men during the Blitz. London is brimming with interesting statues and monuments like this one; I just wish I had the time to photograph and catalogue them all.
The City of London is full of intriguing street names, too. As well as Bleeding Heart Yard, while I was walking around I found (among others) Turn Again Lane, Wardrobe Place, Pageantmaster Court, and this flashback to a cheesy 1980s SF TV show.
(Incidentally, trivia fans, the City of London features a myriad of ‘hills’, ‘lanes’, ‘streets’, ‘alleys’, ‘courts’, ‘walks’, ‘places’ and so forth – but not a single ‘road’.)
A short walk south from St Paul’s led me nicely to the Millennium Bridge. I hadn’t seen it before, and it’s more impressive than I’d thought. It no longer wobbles under the feet of its many thousands of users, but you can feel it gently undulating if you stand in the dead centre. It’s a bit unnerving at first.
From here, you get a fantastic view along the Thames, past Tower Bridge and as far as Canary Wharf to the east. What was London’s tallest building is now overlooked by Europe’s tallest structure, The Shard. Did Sir Christopher ever imagine that St Paul’s would be dwarfed by these later skyscrapers, I wonder?
As you can see from that last batch of photos, the weather had followed me from Wales. I made my way to the South Bank, emerging just outside Tate Modern, and decided to stroll along the Queen’s Walk towards Waterloo. It was thronged with trendy restaurants, small shops, takeaway food stalls, buskers, and thousands of tourists. I hadn’t been in that part of the city for years, and I was amazed by the way it’s been transformed. When I first explored there, it was seedy and run-down (to say the least). Now, it’s a buzzing hub for tourists.
Sure enough, just after I passed Blackfriars Bridge, the heavens opened. I took one photo of the left-over columns from the original bridge before shoving my camera in my pocket. I learned a couple of years ago that water and cameras don’t mix.
It was pointless trying to find somewhere to shelter, so I kept on walking. The shower was quite heavy, but short-lived, luckily. I passed the South Bank Centre, skirted around Waterloo Station, strolled past County Hall and St Thomas’ Hospital, and crossed the river again at Lambeth Bridge. Halfway across, I realised that I wasn’t the only person who’d been caught out by the sudden downpour. I had to feel sorry for this poor couple, who were trudging across on the opposite pavement. I bet they felt as if they were in a Richard Curtis comedy film.
There’s a fantastic view downriver from here, so I grabbed a final photo before heading into Horseferry Road and the 507 bus back to Victoria.
More by luck than judgement, we arrived back at Cathays with two minutes’ grace before the Aberdare train departed. I was back home just after eleven o’clock, which made for a long but very satisfying day. In spite of rumours to the contrary, I’m definitely not tired of life yet – as I’ll certainly never tire of London.
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