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?

9 comments on “The London You Don’t Notice”

  1. snowy says:

    I am very, very easily pleased by twiddly bits on buildings.

    I was once sent somewhere to do something dull, [details long forgotten], and found myself with an unexpected day of leisure half way through because of a technical hitch. So I betook myself for a poke around the town for lack of anything better to do.

    During my perambulation I happened across a small museum housed in an old well-to-do house, the exhibits were the usual fare found in such places, entertaining the interest for just about as long as it took to decypher the script on the label. But nothing remarkable enough to live on in memory.

    Passing out through the kitchen, pausing to briefly admire an early 20thC “Electric Servant Annunciator Panel”, and feeling slightly disappointed that ‘Electric’ only referred to the panel and not members of the Household staff. I landed up in the gardens, also unremarkable, it was only when I turned back to look at the house itself did I spot it.

    The house must have been originally built for someone with wealth and despite being of modest scale it had been originally quite grand, time and the attentions of local builders updating windows hadn’t marred it too badly. But there was something really not quite right about it.

    After some considerable amount of time, [possibly but not necessarily as long as it has taken you to read this far!], it clicked, somebody appeared to have made off with large chunks of the guttering and sought to conceal this crime by filling the yawning and rather important gap with a statue.

    Well perhaps statue is too grand a term for a bust in the roman style, it ended just below the shoulders. Who it was of and how well it hand been carved was difficult to discern under decades of whitewash/masonry paint. But what was particularly unusual about the bust was that the gentleman was wearing a very large and quite skillfully constructed three-cornered hat made of lead.

    And then suddenly the clouds parted, the scales fell from before my eyes and it all slotted into place. When it rained the water would flow down the gutters each side and fall into the side of his hat, and then shoot out the fold at the front of the hat, past the end of his considerable nose into a rain hopper below! [Any casual passers-by at this point would have been entirely forgiven for pausing to wonder why the museum garden’s latest art installation appeared to be a grinning idiot, chuckling at apparently empty space.]

    [And if that is not the absolutely dullest story you read today, I’ll be astonished!]

  2. Roger says:

    Years ago, between Christmas and the New Year, I used to wander round the City with binoculars and a camera with a telephoto lens looking at and photographing Snowy’s “twiddly bits” on buildings. Hardly anyone else was around. After 2001 I had to stop as suspicious policemen kept asking me questions. It wouldn’t be so bad, but they were always the same bloody questions.
    The one relief came when in exasperation I asked “Do I look like a terrorist plotting a terrorist attack?”
    “Well, sir,” said the policeman “If I was a terrorist plotting a terrorist attack, the first thing I’d do is make sure I didn’t look like a terrorist plotting a terrorist attack.” with a completely deadpan face.
    I’ve been wondering about his sense of humour ever since.

  3. Richard says:

    I used to live in some of those New Cross side roads you mention. My favourite was Friendly Street 🙂
    The view that always cheered me up was the high level train line going south out of Waterloo East. It looked over the top of warehouses with odd, pointless doorways and staircases over the roofs, a very old Apple ad banner, and the top floor windows of old pubs. It was grey, dirty, and like a down market Gormenghast.

  4. Wayne Mook says:

    n Manchester with all the regeneration you still find the odd twiddley bits, I was looking at a doorway with a male face above with a long, narrow straight tongue.

    Near the Mancunian Way as you pass by Princess Park Way there is a building that was never finished, it’s a grey skeleton not far from where Leaf Street Baths were.

    Through out Manchester there are a lot of large orange brick building, on closer inspection must of them hold some odd secret. A favourite is on Blackfriars Road on the Salford side of the Irwell, it contains one of the few Real Tennis courts in the country.


  5. Jo W says:

    Hi Snowy,
    That was definitely not a dull story. It was one of those fascinating titbits that sometimes leap from otherwise boring travellers’ tales. A pity that you didn’t name the museum or town. I think it would have been well worth a visit on a wet day!
    Oh, sorry Christopher,you were asking a question,were’t you. My answer would have to be any buildings that have been left alone, in their original brick and stone glory. Those and of course trees, particularly London Plane trees,which helped fight pollution and didn’t mind the soot. Where I was born,in Bermondsey,there were many of these planted. On my way to school, I saw the new leaves sprouting,the shade in summer and the piles of the huge crunchy brown leaves in the autumn. Even in dark foggy winters,they could help find your way,because so many still had the white painted rings on their bark, leftover from wartime blackout. Hooray for the trees!

  6. Ruzz says:

    I went to primary school in the 60s in Belgravia. As there was no outside space the school rented a disused car park at the bottom of Buckingham Palace Road, more or less opposite what I still think of as the BOAC building in Victoria. As you might expect, the “play space” was just a stretch of tarmac, but at the back of it was one of those London plane trees, and it formed the basis for every game – from Custer’s last stand to endless games of tag. Thirty years on I was training as a lawyer and was down at the new Belgravia Police Station and there the tree still was – but with a large new police station built all round it. Nothing else much surviving – but the London plane still there.

  7. David Ronaldson says:

    During the early nineties I attended a management course which included the inevitable problem-solving treasure hunt. I was the only person confident enough to tackle the clues south of the river and in doing so, stumbled upon a backstreet pub somewhere near Lambeth North tube station. I heard the pub before I saw it, as someone was playing a piano and the customers were singing loudly (this was mid-afternoon on a Friday). I had to go in, of course, and the pub was such a throwback I briefly thought I’d walked onto a film set. The average age of the clientele was around 65 and resolutely working class. I stayed for a couple of whiskies and a couple of songs before heading back north of the river. A recent trip to area revealed much redevelopment and sadly no pub.

  8. Brian Evans says:

    Liverpool is said to have more Georgian houses than anywhere in Britain. Despite the Blitz, 1960s development and deterioration, much still remains. There is a large area around the Cathedral (now called the “Georgian Quarte”r would you believe?)but lots of other property dotted around. What remains has largely been gentrified. There was a TV series dealing with a house and its story through the years about 9 months ago.

    Chris, I like “Ladies Who Do” but think Robert Morley and Harry H Corbett should have been cast the other way round.

  9. glasgow1975 says:

    There is, what I can only presume, a chimney or ventilation tower, that’s only visible from a few angles as you drive along the Broomielaw, past Central Station, in Glasgow, that seems to have been modelled on the clock tower of the Palazzo Vecchio…

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