The London You Don’t Notice
There are hundreds of books and websites covering London’s remaining curiosities but how many of the city’s mundane everyday sights do we notice?
Recently I was walking down Gower Street in the rain. Grey pavements, brown bricks, hardly any trees. It’s a walk I’ve always hated, identical terraces on either side, a long, blank featureless road that serves as the other half of Tottenham Court Road’s one-way system. Yet in front of me was a coach load of Japanese tourists braving the rain to take photographs of the street.
I turned around to try and see what they were seeing. What had caught their imagination? There really was nothing to notice.
Then I twigged. Gower Street is a perfect example of a complete 19th century street. Cover up the parking lines and you would be able to film a Sherlock Holmes film here. It’s too mundane and samey to have been messed up by developers, and therefore becomes memorable.
Similarly, Roupell Street in Southwark near Waterloo Station was built like many streets to house a workers’ community and be pretty self-sufficient. It feels enclosed partly because the house at its end, once a chapel, now some kind of therapy centre, closes it off. Although it sometimes turns up in old movies, it’s still fairly invisible among the backstreets, although these days the houses are filled with urban professionals (I note though that they have old-fashioned ariels to reach above all the brick railway arches that surround them).
Near my flat, Keystone Crescent was also built to provide ordinary workers’ housing around the back of a railway station, but the unusual tightness of its curve makes it an extraordinary little street and lifts it out of the mundane. When such a place turns up in films, you know it must have been left behind by the developers.
While the streets of Bermondsey and Old Street have become trustafarian ironic air-quote versions of working class ‘hoods, you only have to look down any Hackney or New Cross side road to see swathes of Victorian and Edwardian terraces, an inescapable London legacy.
Outside the centre of Brussels there’s an entire suburban neighbourhood that’s a perfect example of Belgian art nouveau, and many architectural students visit it. For the equivalent in London you’d go to Chiswick, where entire streets feature architectural classics.
Far more invisible are the suburbs further out in Greater London, where streets remain completely unchanged from the mid 19th century, mainly because we still accept that this is the norm for British housing. You can watch almost any British film from the 1950s to see these neighbourhoods, especially in ‘Ladies Who Do’, ‘On The Beat’ and ‘The Lavender Hill Mob’.
Which feature cheers you that goes unnoticed in your city?