The Hiding Of London


Buildings which were once open have now shuttered.

Much of London has traditionally been hidden from view, but the city’s increasingly open-door policies have not made much more available for visitors see.

There are a vast number of buildings to which no access is permitted, and sections remain under secure supervision thanks to the threat of terrorism. Only during Open House weekend every September do a few briefly open their doors. The event is so popular that you can never get inside the good stuff, and I always end up making do with dull corridors and staircases of factories.

London’s energy powerhouses were once filled with boiler rooms, voltmeters, switchgear and controllers, equipment that’s redundant in the 21st century, when many old features of London buildings are now incorporated into the designs of restaurants and apartments where once they were thrown away. The Ram Brewery in Wandsworth and Battersea power station both plan to do incorporate features when they emerge as yet more ‘retail/luxury’ centres.

The BT Tower sadly remains off-limits thanks to a terrorist bomb revealing its vulnerability decades ago, although I did get to go up this slender, tapering tube some years back. Although it moves in high winds, a great pyramid of concrete at its base keeps it stable (it turns up as a party venue in ‘Bryant & May up the Tower’ in ‘England’s Finest’).

London remains confusingly part-closed. While the pubs are open the clubs are shut, and Mayfair has buildings which have been scandalously left to rot under their absentee owners. Plus, some buildings which were once open have now shuttered. County Hall on the South Bank changed from public use to private ownership, and most of the buildings were quietly converted into top-end apartments under London’s Worst Mayor™ Boris Johnson. The Whitechapel Bell Foundry has now closed, the stunning Daily Express building has been shut for years and even BBC Television Centre has been turned into flats.

Other secret spots remain off-limits – HM Prison Wandsworth is a panopticon penitentiary, its design allowing prisoners to be watched from all angles, the astonishing Foreign Office courtyard is no longer visitable without prior arrangement and even Repton Boxing Club has lost its evocative building to ‘luxury loft living’ and exists solely as an online presence (although events are still staged). The beautiful Midland Bank (think of the bank in ‘Mary Poppins’) is now a food court, while 33 Portland Place, a Victorian billiard room hidden in a neo-classical Adam townhouse (it appeared in ‘The King’s Speech’) is being turned into…you guessed it.

All this was inevitable because great buildings often occupy great sites, and many societies, companies and factories did not need ever more expensive London addresses (Wardour Street was the home of the Dagenham Girl Pipers – they’re in Marylebone now). Thanks to online communities many groups which once occupied physical buildings now exist in the Cloud – but they’re still there, and use available venues as they arise. The Players Theatre is, incredibly, still going and meets at the Comedy Museum and in the RAF Club.

But as London becomes increasingly residential for the lucky few who can afford to live there, I wonder if its new buildings hide interesting architectural quirks or secrets. The rebuilt London Bridge Station now has a food court and market on the site of an old vinegar factory called Vinegar Yard, so at least the names are being preserved.


15 comments on “The Hiding Of London”

  1. Brooke says:

    Following Stewart Lee and W.G. Sebald through intersection of ley lines, I just bumped into Iain Sinclair. Reading The Last London, True Fictions from an Unreal CIty. Makes one hope for a stroll with Arthur.

  2. admin says:

    I may do a proper guide. Some of Mr Sinclair’s work, like ‘Lights Out for the Territory’, is terrific, others prove stubbornly unreadable (to me, at least).

  3. Brooke says:

    ” may do proper guide…” Promises, promises. Yes, I imagine Sinclair’s combination of deep english and shape shifting can be unreadable. His interviews (YouTube) are more accessible and he pinpoints shared anxieties, as “development” restricts us more and more.

    Looking forward to audio version of England’s Finest.

  4. Jan says:

    I’ve got say I liked Sinclair’s work “Lud Heat” Peter Ackroyd acknowledged “Lud Heat” as providing some of the basis of his novel “Hawksmoor”.

    I spent a very long Saturday following the route which Sinclair outlines in “Lud Heat” – not even certain of the title being right anymore (long day @ work). Lots of places mentioned, from breweries with weird shaped windows, the peculiar Hawksmoor churches and we ended up in some bloody pill box next to a railway line somewhere out east. Like why? Bernard that day was down to you I just got swept along …

  5. Brian Evans says:

    Mr F, you may well have read “Walk the Lines” by Mark Mason, but if you haven’t it is a must for anyone who loves London. Published in 2011 it is about the author’s overground walk covering every station on the tube/underground system, doing each line at a time from station to station.

    I am reading it now and never have I read such a fascinating book about London that is so full of interesting facts. Eg-the A-Z has some “ghost streets ” that don’t exist and are in the book in order to catch out anyone copying their maps without permission.

  6. Ian Luck says:

    Mr Fowler – the commitment to turn any interesting building into (a) Rubble, or (b) ‘Wanker Flats™’ seems to be escalating to the point where it is getting beyond depressing. Furthermore, a lot of ‘designers’ seem to have watched the second Harry Palmer movie, ‘Funeral In Berlin’, and looked at the 1960’s concrete brutalism on show, on both sides of the wall, and thought: ‘That would look fantastic, sitting where those old Regency shops once stood – and, as I don’t live near here, I won’t have to look at them every day’.

  7. Jan says:

    “Walk the Lines” really made me laugh he wrote it really well did Mason covering all the minutiae but taking the Mick and not making it too complex or too serious he made real entertainment of the topics covered.

    Ian don’t get me wrong. Understand what you ‘re saying there’s loads of doing places up or knocking them to pieces thats just wrong. Unnecessary and unpleasant.

    Sometimes though the juxtaposition of real modern stuff against the ancient works a treat. Within the City and in totally different parts of town say Stratford or bits of Chelsea or Pimlico – really diverse spots you can look at buildings totally unlike each other from totally different eras and they just look bloody fantastic together. Almost like history waited until these places could sit next door to each other + rub along like best neighbours. It’s not all disaster. There’s tons of bloody awful then all of a sudden you’re gobs smacked in a good way by the sheer brilliance of it! Surely this can go on from here and we can get better at it? Not saying I don’t shudder at the disaster area they have created out of say Victoria but theres other possibilities. Better ones.
    O and come on England I ‘ve never understood rugby much but hope we get this.

  8. Brian Evans says:

    Yes, Jan, I’m enjoying it for the same reason. I am also amazed at how many miles he covered in a day.

  9. Jan says:

    Got the train and walked the rest don’t u reckon? If he saw owt promising out the window he went back and gave it a proper once over…..

  10. David says:

    it’s not much consolation I know, but if you go to the members lounge at the Tate Modern for a price of a cup of coffee you can gaze down straight into the multi-million pound lofts that cluster round the south side of Blackfriars Bridge, it must really irritate the owners.

  11. Brian Evans says:

    Now, Jan, you’re just being cynical!

    I’ve just read the bit where he says about the couple who he saw in a restaurant being over-attentive to the waiter and says that this is a sign of (a) it’s a first date, and (b) they’re both bricking it.

  12. Helen Martin says:

    Alright you lot. What about that stable at the top. Where is it and why that sign – humorous, I’m assuming? Those are so obviously horse stalls, but where?

  13. snowy says:

    It’s in Wandsworth… apparently

    [Optional link above for further info.]

  14. Helen Martin says:

    Thank you, Snowy. Looks as if I’ll have to subscribe to the Londonist, all the fascinating things that turn up there. Things were supposed to change in 2016 so I imagine you can now actually purchase a pint. It looks like a nice development but does it turn out to be more flats for the wealthy or are they actually affordable, I wonder.

  15. Ian Luck says:

    Londonist is great. It introduced me to people like Geoff Marshall, who is very interesting (although his obsession with the mis-numbering of steps in underground stations is a tad OCD, and knackering if you feel tired when watching. The Londonist videos are well made, short and sweet – the most recent, about London’s ‘Paper Bag King’ is lovely, and I have to visit his shop. Last year, they ran a fascinating series on ‘Pagan London’, which I loved, especially the bits where a grotty corner of London was shown, that had been somewhere very important in the past. I love that sort of thing. (Totally unconnected, but the use of the word ‘grotty’ reminded me that in a book I own, the horror films of Pete Walker are referred to as ‘Grot Guinol’. Perfect.)

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