A London Miscellany
Du Caine Court in Balham (a place readers of a certain age may find themselves pronouncing as ‘Bal-Ham’ in an American accent; somebody please explain) has more than a touch of Albert Speer about its design. Monumental, inhuman and very tidy, it supposedly acted as a guide-post for Nazi aircraft during WWII. Senate House in Bloomsbury, to which it bears a distinct resemblance, was also a handy marker for approaching bombers. Hitler supposedly had spies planted within Du Cane Court and planned to live there (and in Senate House) after his Nigel Farage-like retro-fantasy had reached fruition.
There was talk of giving the top of the building a shape like a swastika, but here the truth and the legends merge. Both buildings remain, unlike the tower of the Crystal Palace, which was dynamited to prevent it from being used as a navigation point, although it may have been the tower’s steel structure that attracted the war-effort metal collectors.
There’s hardly an old building in London that does not have a legend attached to it. Back in wartime, the Daily Mail had one of its periodic screeching fits over buildings and tennis courts made of concrete, which they were convinced were secret Nazi gun placements. They also suspected a car factory in Woolwich of manufacturing gun turrets for Nazi planes. Quite how they were to get from there to Germany was never explained.
Buildings are never quite what you think they are. In 1951 221B Baker Street was occupied by the Abbey National Building Society and as part of the Festival of Britain celebrations their HQ was turned into a recreation of Sherlock Holmes’s home, and his gaslit study was laid out with scientific apparatus and fresh crumpets complete with toothmarks, supplied each day by a local baker. In 1957 the Northumberland Arms was refurbished and renamed The Sherlock Holmes. They acquired the exhibition which can be seen on the pub’s first floor, and now tourists believe that this is the real home of a fictional character.
Only one other building has any designs left from the Festival of Britain and that’s number 219 Oxford Street, which was the first new commercial building to be erected after the war. Along the higher floors are the Festival logo, the Skylon and the Dome of Discovery.
There’s one Festival of Britain building that has remained from the exhibition’s birth through to today – the much-loved Royal Festival Hall, in my opinion the most welcoming building in London. As much as the city changes, this crowd-pleaser will remain.
Others disappear all the time; the Upside Down House on Blackfriars Road has gone – I think, I can’t find later reference after 2015 – the premises of WH Wilcox & Co is not actually a house but a 1780s storage depot for horses and carriages.