The Secret Geography of London
When I’m writing a new Bryant & May book, I try to look at London afresh each time, finding some intriguing aspect of the city that I’ve not covered before. Some of these areas are familiar to city residents, some not. Probably the quirkiest I’ve used so far was in ‘On The Loose’, with its examination of North London’s forgotten sacrificial sites.
There are questions about atmosphere, too – what mood do I want to create? Will the type of people who live in the area and the types of buildings they live in influence the tone of the book? One aspect I haven’t covered that affects Londoners but not visitors is London’s hidden geography.
Beyond the city’s obvious topography (hills to the North and South, a basin, a winding river) is a more peculiar pattern that is far less visible. London was constructed East to West, gradually shifting across over centuries, but pockets remained that defied easy urbanisation. Holborn was traditionally an invisible area, a no-man’s land that merely connected other more important streets, and still has a reputation as being dull and featureless, safe and quiet, non-residential.
Victoria, on the other hand, has always had something of a disreputable atmosphere, despite the fact that the Queen lives there. Long before Cardinal Place opposite the Cathedral came into being, the Stag Brewery was on Victoria Street. In the early 17th century it was a small brewery with attached properties that once were part of St James’s Palace. The brewery added lodgings that were used by its staff. Music halls sprang up to amuse the local population – and slums crowded in. The brewery closed down in 1959 and was demolished, but Stag Place and a pub called the Stag still remain. The station was built in 1861. Wide roads divided the community further.
The area’s music hall history left it with two major theatres. The Victoria Palace Theatre has been on its present site since 1832. It was originally known as Moys Music Hall and was most famous for a gold statue of Anna Pavlova which was above it. In 1939 this was removed and ‘lost’. Comedian Norman Wisdom slept near the statue of Marshal Foch when his parents split up at the age of 9. He worked as an errand boy in Artillery Mansions on Victoria Street, which was then a grand hotel. In the 1980s it fell into decay and became a squat.
Victoria is once again in the news for a horrific murder, in which 21 disadvantaged young black men hounded a boy to his death. They were found guilty under the odd and not very practical ‘Joint Enterprise’ law that allows a large group to be convicted when it is impossible to know who struck the fatal blow.
Victoria has a unique disadvantage, in that it is a confluence of bus and rail termini, and home to several large public housing estates. In this sense it has barely changed in two centuries. Now Crossrail works have made the area even worse, as badly lit channels around the station direct hapless tourists into high-risk areas at night.
London is peppered with such areas. Pimlico was traditionally working class, which strikes me as odd, considering it’s the closest neighbourhood to the Houses of Parliament and many properties overlook Big Ben. In the last twenty years this has changed dramatically, and is now one of London’s most expensive parts – yet hardly anyone lives here, thanks to the fact that it is largely owned by non-residents.
Camden Town was once the home to London’s poorer (and therefore more interesting) artists and writers – the wealthy ones living in West London’s immense studio houses and in Hampstead. After the local council turned Camden market into a tourist trap, Camden lost its mojo to edgier, cooler Hoxton, while Clerkenwell, according to its local newspaper, describes its neighbourhood as ‘What Hoxton wants to be when it grows up and gets a job.’
Soho, once so industrious and creative, is now largely given over to restaurants. Calm Fitzrovia, once the home of the clothing trade, has seen that business move to Spittalfields. Formerly run-down Whitechapel has become a hotbed of art and fine dining.
And so it goes, the invisible geographical atmospheres fluctuate around the city, raising some up, dropping others, avoiding certain areas that never seem to change or even get mentioned by outsiders. Of these I would include Barnsbury, Lisson Grove, De Beauvoir, Kilburn and Finsbury.
What’s odd is that the residual atmosphere in each neighbourhood clings on, no matter how many luxury apartments and offices get built.