In which The Author assigns a new meaning to the term ‘Baker Day’
When Kenneth Baker was the Secretary of State for Education, between 1986 and 1989, among his other innovations he introduced ‘in-service training’ days for teachers. These meant that kids got an extra day off once in a while, usually tacked onto a normal holiday. In their early days these occasional closures were nicknamed ‘Baker days’, although I doubt whether many of my friends in the teaching profession would remember that term.
Nowadays they’re called ‘Inset days’, and many teachers and parents I know have mixed feelings about them. Since the phrase ‘Baker Day’ seems to fallen into abeyance, it means that I’m pretty much free to appropriate it for my own purposes. I had one such Baker Day on Monday, after a series of mishaps meant that I was in London on my own.
Rhian and I booked the coach tickets a few weeks ago, pretty much on the back of our earlier trip. Even though she’d only scratched the surface of the world’s greatest city, Rhian has acquired a taste for the place. We decided to get another visit under our belts before Xmas, to do a bit more exploring and check out the lights in the West End. Unfortunately, Rhian had to work on Sunday night, which meant that she wouldn’t be home in time to catch the early train to Cardiff. She told me I could offer her ticket to anyone who might want to take advantage of it.
I gave Helen R. first refusal, because she’d expressed an interest in a day trip when I mentioned it to her. She texted back immediately, and I assumed that she’d make it on the day. Unfortunately, she didn’t reply to any of my subsequent texts, so I assumed that I could eliminate her from my enquiries.
Then I asked Rebecca C., because I knew she’d make the most of a day in London. She’s got exams this week. The same applied to most of my student friends. Several down, quite a few more to go.
I mentioned it on Facebook. Neil R. said he’d love to come, but he’s still recovering from a recent operation. Kim T. said she’d have come if she wasn’t working. Nobody else responded to my invitation.
I tried contacting Helen again over the weekend, to no avail. It was looking increasingly likely that I’d be on my own. Maybe I should change my aftershave.
On Sunday afternoon I had a couple of pints with Gareth L., and asked him whether he fancied a change of scene. He really liked the idea. Finally, it seemed as though I’d found a travelling companion. I gave him the details of train times, and made a note reminding him to be at Cwmbach Station at 0655 Monday morning. Then we went our separate ways: I went home, to get some sleep before the long day ahead of me; Gareth, unfortunately, went to another pub.
When the train arrived at Cwmbach Station, I wasn’t especially surprised when Gareth failed to get on. From that point on, I knew I could have a Baker Day.
The estimable Stuart K. Baker has been meticulously charting the development of the British and Irish rail networks since June 1977, when he completed the first edition of his Rail Atlas. I’ve been collecting them since the sixth edition (with the odd glitch), and a lot has changed in the intervening quarter of a century.
In particular, the East End of London has been transformed beyond recognition since I first travelled through it at the age of eighteen, as I related in London Orbital
. I decided that it was a good opportunity to do something which I haven’t done since I was a student the first time around, and cover some of the unexplored territory in Mr Baker’s latest-but-one edition. Armed with my trusty A-Z Master Atlas of London
, I spent the journey up sketching out an itinerary for myself.
The more familiar you are with London, the more you tend to spot on the way in. It was only a couple of years ago that I really noticed the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of the Dormition of the Mother of God and the Holy Royal Martyrs. It’s tucked away in the side streets of Chiswick, overlooking the A4. Its distinctive blue onion dome caught my eye one day, and now I look out for it every time I travel in by coach. This time I spotted the towers of Hammersmith Bridge in the distance, which I don’t remember seeing before. Similarly, when we pulled into Bulleid Way, I saw the tower of Westminster Cathedral over the roof of the Victoria Station complex. There’s so much to discover with every visit that I could live to be a hundred and never do much more than scratch the surface.
On arrival I headed for the mainline station and plunged into the Underground immediately. I’d topped up my Oyster card online the previous day, so I was able to stroll straight through the barriers and onto a Circle Line train. About twenty minutes later, I was descending even deeper into the ground, making my way through the strange subterranean labyrinth of escalators and corridors which connects Monument and Bank Stations. It was lunchtime, and (as on my previous visit) I was struck by how quiet the Underground seemed. When I first explored London on my own, the corridors and platforms were thronged with people of all ages. This time the majority of the passengers seemed to be middle-aged, or else they were youngish tourists. The train itself was relatively busy, but I was able to get a seat immediately – something that would have been unheard of when I was first in London.
When I eventually arrived at Bank, I was a bit lost for a moment. I’d planned to join the Northern Line, drop down to London Bridge, and pick up a mainline train to Woolwich Dockyard. Instead, I had a choice: the left-hand platform would take me on the journey I’d planned; on the right-hand platform, the Docklands Light Railway would take me through to Lewisham. I did a quick mental calculation and jumped onto the DLR train just as the doors were closing. I checked the schematic on the wall of the car and realised that I’d made the right choice.
We’d been on the move for about half a minute or so when we shot from the underground station into brilliant daylight. We were rising gently, too, and after a short journey I spotted a pub called The Artful Dodger clustered among tall narrow buildings to my right. I knew exactly where we were; the DLR trains from Tower Hill Gateway join the network here, before heading into the Isle of Dogs or the suburbs of East London.
I’d been here in January 2011, as I related in Limehouse Blues and Twos
, but I only went a couple of stops before plunging into the mysterious streets of Limehouse and Shadwell. This time, I sat back and enjoyed the leisurely rollercoaster ride through the city beyond the City (within the city.) The high-tech train took us past Limehouse Basin, then turned southwards through Canary Wharf, South Quay and the wonderfully-named Mudchute on its way to Island Gardens. At the southern tip of the Isle of Dogs I disembarked and climbed up (yes, up!) to surface level. I was going to do the next bit on foot.
I crossed the road into Island Gardens and stopped in my tracks. I’d forgotten just what an incredible view there is across the river. It was time to take some photos before continuing.
Just through the high iron gates of Island Gardens is a strange circular structure with a glass roof. You could be forgiven for thinking it’s a public lavatory. Instead, it’s the gateway to one of London’s lesser-known attractions. I first encountered it in my battered old A-Z when I was a student, and made a special trip out east to see it for myself. Can you guess what it is?
You walk through one of the rectangular doorways, where you’ll find a chamber lined with white ceramic tiles, a lift (complete with attendant), and the top of a spiral staircase. Rusted iron steps lead down into the ground, and end at an extraordinary vestibule to adventure.
Welcome to the Greenwich Foot Tunnel.
Built between 1899 and 1902, it links the two banks of the Thames and replaced an unreliable ferry service across the river. This extraordinary feat of engineering is lined by some 200,000 ceramic tiles, and the reinforcements at the northern end (which you can see in my photo) were installed after it was damaged by German bombing. It descends gradually at either end before levelling out in the middle, and (amazingly) is open 24 hours a day – although, as Rhian remarked when I showed her the photos, it’s probably a mugger’s paradise after dark. It even forms part of a National Cycle Route, but cyclists are asked to dismount and wheel their bikes through it. If you’re ever in that neck of the woods, it’s well worth taking five minutes out to walk beneath the capital’s main artery.
I climbed an identical set of iron stairs and emerged at one of the finest sights you’ll see in this part of London: the Cutty Sark.
I think I’ve mentioned previously that I love old ships, especially beautiful sailing vessels like this. This old tea clipper has been painstakingly restored in dry dock at Greenwich, and is a major tourist attraction. Unfortunately, at thirteen quid, going aboard was a little beyond my budget yesterday. Maybe next time.
Nearby is Greenwich Pier, where tourist boats stop on their journey from the city centre. There’s a stunning view upriver, and on the opposite bank you can see the brick tower which leads to this subterranean secret. I’m pretty sure Greenwich wasn’t this photogenic when I first visited it, in between buses on a circumnavigation three decades ago.
I crossed the road and made my way to the Old Royal Naval College. Now a museum called Discover Greenwich, it’s a must for naval historians and enthusiasts of all things seafaring. Like the V&A (and, presumably, the other big museums and galleries) admission is free, but they ‘suggest’ a donation towards running costs. I didn’t go in, but I took a few photos of the exterior. I was particularly impressed by the busts of our naval heroes ranged along the frontage the main entrance, and the great swashbuckling statue of Sir Walter Raleigh next to the approach.
By now the sun was well and truly over the yardarm, so I headed off in search of a decent pub. Unsurprisingly, the nautical connections came thick and fast: in quick succession I passed the Gipsy Moth (named after Sir Francis Chichester’s yacht, which is also preserved nearby), a Wetherspoon (naturally!), the Admiral Hardy, and this one, which appealed to me because of the name if nothing else:
In the end, I decided to have a pint in the Admiral Hardy, tucked away in the corner of Greenwich Market. It wasn’t great, but at least it had the prices on display. £4.00 for a pint of Fosters wasn’t bad, so I settled down to read my paper. (I also texted Rhian to tell her she was missing a terrific day out, which didn’t impress her much.) I don’t know whether the pub hosts live music, as it seemed a bit small for that, but its walls are lined with rock memorabilia. It wasn’t at all what I was expecting, given its proximity to the Old Naval College. I’d probably revisit it if I was in that part of town again.
I explored the shops of Greenwich for a little while. They were an odd mix of expensive boutiques and charity shops, takeaway franchises and cosy tea shops, and two great seedy-looking second-hand record shops cheek by jowl with an immaculate Waterstone’s. It’s an odd little district, all in all.
I decided to check out Waterstone’s – after all, I can come at it with an insider’s critical eye. It had a rather bizarre interior layout, with the fiction upstairs. Not for the first time, I decided to measure the ABV content of the fiction section. This has nothing to do with alcohol; instead, it’s the number of books on the shelves by three of my favourite authors: Peter Ackroyd, J. G. Ballard, and Kurt Vonnegut Jr. Waterstone’s Greenwich scored a remarkably high 4:4:1 – there are no prizes for guessing which of Mr Vonnegut’s books was the one. I also discovered that Ben Aaronovitch has written a fifth Peter Grant novel. I still haven’t read the fourth one. (Xmas present to myself, I think…)
Back on the main street, above the rooftops I could see the top of a church tower. Something in the back of my mind told me that I was in the vicinity of a Nicholas Hawksmoor construction. I was right.
This is St Alfege’s Church, one of the half-dozen churches which inspired Ian Sinclair’s remarkable book Lud Heat, as well as Peter Ackroyd’s chilling novel Hawksmoor. In the sketch map in Mr Sinclair’s book, the Isle of Dogs is indicated by the head of my old childhood nightmare, the Egyptian god Anubis. It’s funny how I managed to stumble across it by chance, isn’t it? I decided to eat my lunch in the little park behind the church, and then the synchronicities struck again.
Apropos of nothing, Rebecca C. and I had been talking about ‘dogging’ on Sunday afternoon. Here I was, just south of the Isle of Dogs, and at the entrance to the park I found a very bizarre sign. The photo I took isn’t great, so I’ve transcribed it for you:
Show Respect! Get Respect!
Regardless of gender or orientation, if you engage in sexual activities in public places you may distress others and break the law. By engaging in sexual activity in a public place you may well be committing a criminal offence:
- Outraging public decency (includes a sexual activity which may be seen or heard by others)
- Sexual activity in a public lavatory (includes activity in a locked cubicle)
- Intentional exposure of your genitalia intending to cause alarm or distress
- Various other public order and anti-social behaviour offences may also apply
Respect the law and the rights of others … and gain respect in return.
No-one should behave in behaviour in public which causes others (including children) harassment or distress.
Consider the time of day and other users of the area. Remember that children explore areas away from the paths. If you can be seen or heard you are likely to be reported to the police. And dispose of your litter responsibly (littering is an offence too!)
The Metropolitan Police is there to protect and serve everyone.
If offences or incidents are reported, the police have a duty to investigate them. This may include arrest or prosecution if offences are suspected to have been committed.
At the bottom of the sign were the phone numbers of Crimestoppers, the Terrance [sic] Higgins Trust, a Sexual Health Helpline, and NHS Direct.
Well, it makes a change from ‘Please Keep Off the Grass’, doesn’t it? It’s more ‘No Doggers Allowed.’ While I was confirming my Hawksmoor hunch with Mr Sinclair’s book yesterday, I found the word ‘Bestiality’ written near the symbol for St Alfege’s Church. Well, the sign doesn’t say you can’t do it, after all…
After studying my A-Z in the pub, I’d decided to head north. The DLR terminates at Stratford, as does the Jubilee Line extension. If I doubled back at Stratford and headed back into town, I could colour in two large sections of my Baker in fairly short order. I headed for Cutty Sark Station. It was time to board the rollercoaster again.
They say you should never take photos from a moving train. Even so, on my journey through the incredible futuristic city that’s replaced the run-down docks I remembered, it was hard to resist. Just have a look at these:
This last one must be the shortest distance between two stops anywhere in London. I was standing at the end of one platform, and in the centre of the picture is the next station. No zoom, no telephoto, no special effects – just a minute’s walk (if that) at ground level. If anyone knows of two UK stations (on the same line) in closer proximity, please let me know.
Here’s one of the most remarkable civil engineering projects in London at the moment. No, it isn’t a crashed spaceship. It’s the new Crossrail station at Canary Wharf, part of the £14bn programme to drive yet another railway line under the capital. It’s amazing that there’s any room left when you think about it.
I didn’t take many more photos on this stretch. I could have quite easily set the camera to Video mode and recorded the whole journey, to be honest – there’s so much fantastic development to see. There were new flats being constructed beside the DLR; old warehouses were being adapted into living spaces, offices or small retail units; the entire place has been yanked into the Twenty-First Century with incredible rapidity. I don’t know how many of the old Londoners are still living nearby, but the people on the train seemed to be a lot more diverse than the passengers who’d got on at Bank. Go figure…
As we approached Stratford, I spotted something out of the opposite window that baffled me for a moment. It was clearly a huge sports stadium, but I couldn’t work out what it was. I knew it wasn’t the West Ham ground. I couldn’t imagine Leyton Orient affording a place like it either. Then the penny dropped: it was the Olympic Park. I was on the wrong side of the train to take any decent photos, though. Sorry. Maybe next time.
Stratford Station is not only huge, it’s also a bloody nightmare to negotiate. There was one less-than-useful map in the long corridor leading to the outside world. Whoever designed it obviously forgot to add the little ‘You are here’ arrow to the finished version. How the hell did hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world descending on this part of London for the Olympics ever managed to find their way out? It’s beyond me. Maybe some of them are still wandering aimlessly from platform to platform. There’s an idea for a short story right here – a Ballardesque nightmare of urban cannibalism in a nightmarish ultramodern railway station. Leave it with me.
I was tempted to go and explore the transformed Stratford itself. Thirty years ago it was a run-down clutter of independent shops, chain stores, bargain shops, a grim shopping precinct and several unwelcoming pubs. From the train I’d spotted the huge Westfield Shopping Centre, with the Marks & Spencer logo prominent on the exterior. That would have been unheard of on my first visit. However, by this time my lunchtime pint was making its presence felt. I might have found a gents’ in the station if I’d lived long enough. Instead, I decided to jump on the Jubilee Line train and head back into town.
I might have notched up another line on my Baker as a result, but from Canning Town onwards the train runs underground. Before we reached that point, I was able to check out some more of the new developments springing up all over the East End. At Waterloo I jumped off the tube again, hoping to find a gents’ there. I drew a blank, so I headed off into the side streets, wandering aimlessly in the hope that I’d find somewhere to spend a penny. I passed a few pubs, and it crossed my mind to nip in and use the gents’. However, I knew from experience that I’d have to have another drink when I was in there – followed in short order by another piss, and the whole cycle would begin again.
Quite without warning I found myself looking at the window display of Honour, one of the UK’s premier fetishwear shops. I’d always known it was in this neck of the woods, but I hadn’t known exactly where to find it. If Helen had been with me, we’d almost certainly have called in for a browse. But my priorities lay elsewhere on Monday, so I carried on walking.
I came to a mysterious footpath that runs underneath Waterloo Station, so I decided to use it as a short cut. About halfway along I passed something called The Vaults
, with a couple of youngish chaps standing outside. I didn’t stop to have a closer look, but according to their website it’s a theatre space and gallery, and it’s been awarded the Best Business Startup of 2014 by Lambeth Council. Very intriguing.
A little bit further along was something else which surprised me: an officially-sanctioned graffiti area, where street artists could do their stuff with a clear conscience. The sign warned them that there a few general rules, including ‘No sexism’ and ‘No racism’ – but they’d forgotten to include ‘No anti-authority slogans.’ Thus it was that the words ‘Fuck Police’ were sprayed all over the place. I don’t really think they’ve thought it through.
Back in the daylight, I had a brainwave. St Thomas’ Hospital was only a couple of minutes away. They’d certainly have public conveniences within easy shout of the main doors. I got there just in time, and emerged into Millennium Gardens with renewed vigour.
Across the river, Big Ben was just gearing up to strike the hour. It was already twilight, and for the first time that day I missed my tripod. (I think I’ve already told you that one of the legs fell off a couple of months ago.) Low-light and distance photography without a tripod isn’t a good idea, so the rest of the photos are a bit fuzzy.
I walked across Westminster Bridge and up Whitehall. As I was passing Downing Street, the gates were opened to admit some handsome black cars. I could hear music coming from the street, too. I wondered what was going on, but I’ll probably never know. I entered Trafalgar Square to see the Xmas tree which the Norwegian people send us every year. It was a bit underwhelming, to be honest. The same can be said of the rest of the Xmas decorations in London, as you’ll see.
I want to mention the BBC Radio 4 Xmas Appeal
here. St Martin in the Fields Church overlooks Trafalgar Square, and every year they offer much-needed practical support to London’s many homeless people. It’s a really worthwhile cause, and if you can spare any money to help them out, it would be greatly appreciated.
I walked up Charing Cross Road for a while, looking in the windows of the many bookshops which line this famous street. I was navigating from memory, but I soon arrived at Leicester Square and a pub called The Porcupine. I’ve been there once before, with my cousins Julian and Matthew and some of their pals, when the boys were living in Walthamstow. I looked in and wondered about having a pint in Julian’s memory, but they had only ‘premium’ lagers on draught, and Goddess only knows how much they’d have cost. Instead I headed into Chinatown and made my way towards Soho.
Soho has changed beyond measure since I first wandered around it as a young student. Gone are the many ‘independent’ cinemas, strip clubs, peep shows and clip joints which used to line its narrow streets. Instead, trendy bars and eateries have sprung up everywhere. There are still remnants of the old days, mind you. On the corner of Greek Street I found a shop selling fetishwear, but it seemed to be aimed exclusively at gay men. Just around the corner in Old Compton Street is the Admiral Duncan, a popular gay pub which was bombed by a right-wing extremist named David Copeland. Three people were killed and seventy injured in the attack, fifteen years ago. It’s difficult to believe it’s been that long. Now the pub is thriving again, along with the many other boozers sprinkled liberally across the area.
Close by is the Coach and Horses (aka ‘Norman’s’), which I last went to with Martin H. and Huw F., when we visited Parliament last year. I looked in, but it was already pretty crowded. I decided to walk around Soho for a while longer, criss-crossing its side streets before arriving at Berwick Street. The market was closing up for the evening, and the fetishwear shop I remembered from the old days wasn’t to be found anywhere. Maybe it wasn’t in Berwick Street after all. It’s been a long time, after all.
I headed north and emerged onto Oxford Street, to be met by another set of underwhelming Xmas lights. I was showing the photos to Rhian yesterday, and we coined a new word to describe these lacklustre trimmings: Boristerity. I’m sure the lights used to be much more spectacular years ago. Maybe ‘minimalism’ is just the order of the day.
I walked as far as Oxford Circus, then turned down Argyll Street and made my way to Carnaby Street. Once synonymous with Swinging London, now it’s a sad tourist trap of overpriced clothes shops and chain stores. I walked past Liberty (which actually had put some effort into its Xmas decorations), cut across Golden Square, and headed towards Piccadilly Circus. Here, at the end of Regent Street, were more less-than-spectacular Xmas trimmings.
I decided to have a look in Waterstone’s, which is situated in the old Simpson’s department store. Allegedly, Simpson’s was the inspiration for the long-running BBC sitcom Are You Being Served?. I’ve never been in there before, but got the impression that Waterstone’s Piccadilly has retained something of the snob value of its predecessor. I didn’t like the place, to be honest. The books I wanted to check out were on the fifth floor, and I couldn’t be bothered to wait for the lift. I didn’t even measure the ABV content before heading out into the fresh evening air again.
From Piccadilly I caught a 38 bus to Victoria. It was pretty full, and I found a seat on the upper deck next to an attractive young Japanese student. (Now who’d have expected that to happen, eh?) We made our way slowly past Hyde Park Corner and through Belgravia to our final destination, where I had to wake my travelling companion. She told me she’d had a long day as well, and was glad I hadn’t left her to be conveyed to who-knows-where.
I was in Victoria Coach Station in plenty of time for the Cardiff departure, and we made good time out of London. Unfortunately, we didn’t make good enough time into Cardiff for me to catch the 2141 train. I decided to call into the Pen and Wig to kill time before the last train left. I timed the walk from the Students’ Union to the pub, so that I wouldn’t be cutting it too fine on the way back. There was an open mic night in progress when I arrived, so I had a pint and listened to the singers for a while before making a move. As things turned out, I had about a minute’s wait at Cathays before the Aberdare train pulled in.
All in all, it was a very pleasant way to spend a day. It revealed more interesting places to explore in detail on subsequent visits. I can highlight some virgin territory in my Baker, too. I think I’ll try and make a trip to London at least a quarterly affair, whether alone or with friends. It’s certainly a welcome change from Aberdare.
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