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.

13 comments on “The Secret Geography of London”

  1. John Howard says:

    As the City of London (not sure if it needs capitals or not) is roughly the geographical centre of the boroughs has London as a whole always radiated out from the area or has the heart of the city moved about depending on fashion/commerce?

  2. DavidF says:

    A couple of things about Victoria.

    1) It’s not crossrail, it’s a massive tube station upgrade. Still massively disrupting, though.
    2) Due to the tube works, the Stag pub is now a hole in the ground (although one can say that The Stag, a rather depressing gay pub aimed at office workers, could always have been described in similar terms).
    3) The owners of most of Victoria Street and environs are trying to turn it into something more “villagey” with more shops and restaurants in the surrounding streets, and with the new ofice developments being a lot less monolithic. Good luck with that.
    4) Artillery Mansions was one of the earlier examples of turning knackered old buildings into posh flats, in the mid 90s. Ah, the days when £250k for a duplex penthouse in SW1 was considered expensive…

  3. admin says:

    Thanks David –

    I’m shocked that the upgrade is going to take until 2017. I went to the Stag once and lost the will to live in the time it took to get served. On Sunday, however, there’s a huge paperback book fair in Victoria. The last time I went I was the only person there and got some great bargains!

  4. Dan Terrell says:

    Very interesting piece.

  5. jan says:

    Re John Howard’s query Roman London was based in the City (or vice versa in fulness of time!) but the Saxons came along and based themselves not on the ruins of the city but in the area which forms the West section of Linoolns inn fields and the area West of that which i think (not sure) falls just west of Kingsway. Then in subsequent developments based on the geography of the great estates of London development swung to the West and ultimately Wealth and the location of Heathrow swung development of the suburbs around to the west of the capital. SOUTH London has always been developed in a slightly different way taking into consideration industrial London and the influence of the arts and entertainments industries (i use the term in its broadest sense) throughout the middle ages, Tudor times and beyond. All developments are bounded by physical borders of the city the Fleet Valley, the London Heights in the north of the capital. THIS is a really broad topic and i could bore for England on it. However i will end with this a friend of mine met a developments guy some time ago – back in the 1990s he met this bloke on holiday and this fella told him that into the mid part of 2000s till 2050 the development of London would swing back to the east as in the times when the river and its commerce were in full flow. Then of course came the Olympics and this developer was talking about the main London airport being based in gravesend or on islands in the Thames estuary so watch this space……..

  6. Alan Morgan says:

    London’s place names map out earlier places that surrounded it before being swallwed up, and whose names remain even today. From what my Granda Bill told me when I was young ‘ham’ means it was a meadow (or a place too small for a church I’d add myself, as in hamlet), burgh (so ‘borough’) and ‘wark’ were fortified (palisade-style I would guess) and thus towns or the halls of prosperous people, and ‘sea’ were wharfs. Chelsea being the chalk-wharf is the only one I remember, so I suppose Battersea was where one waited for centuries until the arrival of the potato and a proper fish supper*.

    So East and West Ham, Southwark, and so on.

    Pure Lambeth Londoner my late Granda (also a colossal piss-taker, so pinch of salt and all that).

    *As in food, not slang.

  7. Dan Terrell says:

    Nice adds Jan and Howard. A very interesting topic Admin has begun. Be interesting to see it continued over the next months – not centuries unless we all have the time. Berlin is much the same and New York, too,
    A womderful book was published a year or two back on New York City. Using data from all sorts of research fields. A group created an “Over” or “Above” type book – you know the ones, for ex “Moscow From Above” or “Over Paris”. But, but the New York book started with the “peopleless” and “deeply forested” isle that was to become New York City, introduced the native Americans and their village clearings, then the Dutch, and so on it went until now: nearly all tall buildings, except for the wonderful Central Park, which is the lungs of the city and its “original” soul. More research posting on London, please.

  8. Dan Terrell says:

    Sorry Alan, not Howard there, but fine men both.

  9. Helen Martin says:

    “when his parents split up at the age of 9.” Remarkably young his parents were, Admin. Sorry, it’s just me. This is fascinating stuff and Dan is right about there being development patterns to cities, partly sources of fresh water, transportation routes and protection. They did a series about the development of major cities and it was interesting to watch New York spread out, Paris develop tunnels and London go up, down and sideways. I cannot get London straight, even after being there and I’m sure I have the river flowing the wrong way in my mind. In pictures I have to hope there’s a bridge or summat to detect the flow direction.

  10. Alan G says:

    Helen – I have the same problem with the Thames – so I strolled down to sort it out. It goes left.

  11. Alan G says:

    (Sorry – have been on a retreat this last week. No meat, no caffeine, no alcohol – so am now very glad to be home)

  12. Helen Martin says:

    Alan, such a healthful week you must have had. Which bank are you standing on? Name two buildings on your side.

  13. Alan G says:

    Helen. On my side? Er… Hampton Court Palace is one. But I can’t really think of any others without getting a map out. Kingston is, it seems, where Julius Caesar crossed the Thames, and we have the King’s Stone upon which several Saxon Kings were crowned (from Aethelred onwards). Oh – and Comberton, which is historically important because I live there.

    The other side is more tricky – I’d have to cross the bridge.

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