Things You Could Once Do In London That You Can’t Do Now


…Like go to the London Zoo and ride a fair selection of animals. You could see Lubetkin’s beautiful penguin pool actually filled with penguins. Or how about the chimps’ tea party, where cakes were thrown by monkeys in frocks. Anthropomorphism, I know, but I recall the chimps loving it as much as the children. However…

At the Christmas Circus at Holborn you could see a man put his head in a lion’s mouth, and wild jungle beasts tamed with a chair. And er, a whip. When you’re seven you can’t tell a noble creature from a ragged, terrified animal with no dignity left.

Before the IRA attacks of the 1970s, London was an open city where you could walk into every building without needing a swipecard on a lanyard. At cinemas we used to walk in backwards as people were coming out to get free seats. Asking theatre managers if we could sit in on rehearsals, we were often allowed to do so if we kept quiet. Art galleries and museums were frequently deserted. No-one took photographs except in Trafalgar Square – then still full of pigeons – and outside Buckingham Palace.

Of course it was impossible to buy so much as a cup of tea on the Thames Embankment, or indeed anything at all on Sundays. We now experience the opposite extreme of being offered refreshment opportunities every ten feet or so, and open-air concert goers turning up with trucks of food, as if they can’t concentrate on some music for two hours without stuffing their faces.

On Sundays most cinemas showed double features. We’d see two movies and sit around to catch the beginning of the bit we missed when we arrived, because it was common to come in halfway through and not think it strange that we were seeing the story in the wrong order.

Newsreel cinemas had rolling one-hour shows of news and cartoons, perfect for filling in time if you were waiting for a train or a lonely bachelor. The last one I remember appears in ‘An American Werewolf In London’.

Everyone listened to and watching the same thing. Housewives’ Choice in the morning, Two Way Family Favourites while you were washing the car on a Sunday morning. Britain’s first indie radio station Radio Caroline in the evening when your parents weren’t around because they disapproved. As the car was king, public transport offered deals to children to fill up their underused transport. I used Red Rovers, cheap one-day passes, to get around London as a kid.

Actually, thinking back about it, I think I prefer London as it is now – if only it was less expensive and overcrowded.

30 comments on “Things You Could Once Do In London That You Can’t Do Now”

  1. Wayne Mook says:

    There are plenty of things I miss in Manchester, the wanton destruction of building is saddening, but on the whole it’s a better place. In a way I miss the Sunday emptiness and pubs closing for the afternoon, but the pros out weigh the cons. Shame we’ve gone more protectionist, which I think is a bad idea for a country whose wealth is based on trade and the main driver for trade has always been people.


  2. Dave Kearns says:

    Here in the US things have changed dramatically. Such as needing to check your body armor before heading to the Mall or for an evening out.

  3. Peter Tromans says:

    You could buy a simple, fresh, perfectly prepared cheese and tomato sandwich on almost any street corner. You could even pay for it with Luncheon Vouchers, though I never found out exactly what they were.

  4. Liz Thompson says:

    You could demonstrate in Grosvenor Square against the war in Vietnam. Bet you can’t demonstrate right outside the American embassy now.

  5. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    I loved Red Rovers.
    50p ( was it cheaper under 14? ) to travel round London all day!
    All those mysteriously named tube stations were so tempting.

  6. admin says:

    I went on far too many marches, which I do think are better organised now. Favourite old sandwich flavours crop up in the Bryant & May books; sardine and tomato, liver sausage and onion, tuna and onion.

  7. Helen Martin says:

    I’ve never seen a porcupine with spines erected like that before. It confirms that the rather odd – and large – thing I have in my knitting bag is indeed a porcupine quill.
    Take any 60 year span you like in history and you’ll find things that are gone at the end of them. Not that we shouldn’t work to retain desirable and useful things, but things do change. Doesn’t mean I don’t weep at the losses. Streetcars in Vancouver, transCanada passenger trains, feeling safe walking at night.

  8. Jan says:

    Liz haven’t they shifted the American embassy to free up Grosvenor Square for more hotel accomodation?

    To keep things evened up they have emptied NSY for the same reason.

  9. Ian Luck says:

    Didn’t they stop using the Lubetkin Penguin pool because the surrounds were bad for the poor Penguins’ feet? I’m sure I heard that somewhere.

  10. Liz Thompson says:

    Jan, yes indeed they have! At enormous cost too. But supposed to be bomb-proof, etc., but not, I hope, totally demonstrator-proof.

  11. Jan says:

    Yes but for some reason not as popular with demonstrators now! Probably change in time.

  12. Jan says:

    Still not got to Sixpenny Handley Snowys I’m going Bournemouth tomorrow and hoping to catch a bus over to Christchurch to see Hengistbury Head. An iron age Hill fort of sorts.
    I of Wight Thursday to visit friends who have moved there and see another couple of places.

    Am getting there its on me list be going soon. 6d Handley here I come.

  13. Helen Martin says:

    Was Hengistbury Head near Thanet where Hengist (and Horsa) supposedly landed?

  14. Trace Turner says:

    Did you really watch newsreels while waiting for a lonely bachelor?

  15. snowy says:

    Penguin Pool…

    Built ☑

    Twiddley ☑

    [It’s like an open goal!]

    The original design set out to achieve 3 aims: Be nice for the occupants by modelling as far as possible the natural environment of the Antarctic. Enable the viewer to see as many natural behaviours as possible. Let the architect show off. [And has some very intricate engineering going on in the self supporting ramps.]

    Until it was ‘restored’.

    Out went the original rubber flooring, replaced with concrete. And to compound the error this was given a modern non-slip finish, quartz based – effectively like sandpaper, [the cause of the foot problems]. The zoo had also restocked with another penguin species which had markedly different behaviours, [South American Humbolts, that like to burrow].

    So short of issuing some penguin sized jack-hammers and and pairs of tiny flip-flops all round it was doomed.

    [Humbolts also like to dive off high ledges, but the pool was too shallow, the constant ‘thunk’ of birds nutting themselves on the bottom probably became a bit wearing on the keepers.]

  16. snowy says:

    Jan. no rush it’s been there for two millenium, I’m sure its not going to blow away. It might even be too lush/verdant to find at this time of year. Has your book pitched up yet?

  17. Bruce Rockwood says:

    Maybe the loss of 20 shillings in the pound with decimalisation made a major transformation. Prices increased. I was in Manchester the summer of 1967 doing local history research based on E.P. Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class. Learned how to make purchases in the old currency that was also the way it appeared in literature. A major change. Will Brexit occur without going back to the true English currency?!

  18. Liz Thompson says:

    The abolition of the half-p also increased prices overnight, but that particular ruse has been going on for centuries.
    Bring back the groat!

  19. Helen Martin says:

    and the thruppenny bit! To say nothing of crowns, guineas, and all those other coins that didn’t seem to figure in any table of monetary value, although I can figure guineas, not that I’d be likely to be shopping in that level of marketing. I always wondered how people kept it all straight. (My friend’s favourite story from his teaching days involved a boy asking for a ruler. Dale: I am the ruler here. Student: but you’re not straight, sir.)

  20. Jan says:

    Yes Snowy I have been bit busy but am going to have a read about the Stop line this morning.
    Collected book on tuesday.

    Helen basically Hengistbury head is a sea fronted hillfort Hillforts by the edge of the sea are a whole separate category of the beast I saw a couple of really spectacular ones in the Scilly isles earlier this summer. Nowhere near Thanet but in all probability it’s the same guy being referenced.

  21. Ian Luck says:

    Here’s some things you can’t do In London any more: put on a white tin hat with ‘ARP’ written on it, and shout “Put that bleedin’ light aht!”. Or catch a trsin from Snow Hill station. Or visit the Texan Ambassador. Or get off a train at Highgate (High level) station. Evade the police by nipping into Ely Place.

  22. Ian Luck says:

    ‘Trsin’? For fuck’s sake. Bloody sausage fingers.

  23. Helen Martin says:

    Nice list, Ian. How about things you can do now but couldn’t before? Visit any museum or library for free and at times accessible to the working classes. Vote, although we might want to look at the type of representative on offer.

  24. Ian Luck says:

    Things I’d like to do in London: (1): Drive along Downing Street, when that shambolic git Johnson is in residence, in a tractor that is pulling a full, and operational manure spreader, set to ‘Maximum’… And that’s it. Childish, yes, satisfying? Oh, hell, yes.

  25. Helen Martin says:

    Oh, Ian, that vision is marvelous. Just being able to go down Downing St. without a press pass or going through those steel gates would be something, but with a spreader?! oh, yes. Hmm, does this explain why there aresteel gates and security at the opening to Downing St.?

  26. Ian Luck says:

    More for terrorists than dung flinging equipment. In rural areas of the UK, farmers have occasionally used this machinery to show displeasure. The one I remember most was in the Lake District, where a farmer showed his dissatisfaction with the local branch of his bank, by covering it in a ton or so of well-rotted farmyard muck. It takes the idea of the ‘dirty protest’ and cranks it up several notches. Disgusting, yes, but also childishly funny.

  27. Jan says:

    Ely Place did have its own law enforcer sat in a little glass and pvc box at the top of the road. Often engaged making tea for law enforcement officers from the City . Not for any other bugger else! At the other end of Ely Place was an old convent/priory / church where early on in the year a weird little ritual called “The ceremony of the throats”took place. Think it all kicked off in Medieval times when some Anglo Saxon or subsequent saint stopped some young kid from choking on a fish bone. Was really sad all these poor souls with illnesses + various throat cancers many of them youngsters would turn up hoping for some sort of a cure.

    Course backing onto Ely Place from Hatton Garden is the wonderful Mitre pub technically in Cambridgeshire or Norfolk or somewhere East Anglian. Because of the presence of the Ely Place Ecclesiastical establishment. Never realised till I moved to the West country how common this phenomenon is. There’s little bits of Dorset surrounded by Somerset villages and its because of ancient ties with religious buildings – priories. mainly. Massive landowner now the church even more so back in the Medieval Period.
    One of the bars round the back of the Mitre has a cherry tree growing through it. Bar is made of cherry wood. Just an amazing place. Heard it had shut down. Turn into some very upmarket grub place probably. Shouldn’t be lost. Just a fabulous place.

  28. Ian Luck says:

    Helen – I do remember, when I was five, spending a day in London, and walking down Downing Street, and being shown Number 10. At that time, the Mackintosh wearing, pipe-smoking Harold Wilson was the incumbent. The only sign that this was somewhere special, was the presence of a Policeman standing by the front door. The heavy gates were installed many years later, and I’ve read that they were not popular, even with those they protected. But necessity prevails, unfortunately. Number 10 is rather TARDIS like inside, and occupies parts of adjacent buildings. It’s also a hardened refuge, as you’d expect. Winston Churchill used to terrify his staff, by going into the back garden and watching the air raids. He was persuaded later, to sit them out in the ‘Hole in the ground’, or Cabinet War Rooms, but even then, he preferred to visit the converted ‘ghost station’ at Down Street, which was used by the Railway Executive as a secure operations centre, but was often used by the Cabinet. And with good reason – it was far safer than the rather shallow CWR complex, being a lot deeper underground.

  29. Helen Martin says:

    Part of the Downing Street “problem” is that the front door opens right onto the pavement. There is no protective area of lawn or driveway or whatnot to provide a defense perimeter, something Mr. Wilson would have been shocked at needing. It’s one of the things I’ve always liked about it – no “side”, although even our Governor General’s residence is just a largish house in a yard. We just walked up the drive when we went to tea there.

  30. Ian Luck says:

    Apparently, the land on which Downing Street now stands was owned by a Mr Chicken, which amusingly, was mentioned as an aside in an episode of ‘Doctor Who’, with the Doctor saying that he was a very nice man. As you do. The first buildings built after Mr Chicken sold the land were very, very badly built, with very shallow foundations. Thankfully, the ones there today are a lot better constructed.
    The US Embassy in Grosvenor Square was an oddity amongst US Embassies – usually, the US Government will buy the plot of land on which the Embassy stands outright in the country it’s situated in. Not so in London. To the great displeasure of the US Government, for many, many years, the owner of Grosvenor Square, who I believe is the Duke Of Westminster, has refused to sell the land, as he refuses everyone else who wishes to buy land he owns, and so, the Embassy was on a lease, probably of 99 years. That might account for the move as well.

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