Another London Walk Part 1

London

The last few days of fine late summer weather have lured me out to look around at the streets. One walk sends me through half a dozen surprising London churches, another gets me along the Thames and a third passes through the alleyways of Clerkenwell and the Square Mile. I started wondering: How can a city move on and still keep its character?

Despite all efforts to reduce it to a generic metropolis, London remains filled with evocative and slightly peculiar corners. Researching this week, I found that one such graceful backstreet lacuna now had 20 ‘Luxury Loft Living’ apartments crammed onto it, each little glass box starting at a couple of million. Its main selling point? ‘Get away from the crowds in the city’.

But there are signs of more sympathetic building in progress. I revisited St George’s Gardens in Bloomsbury, the little neighbourhood spot I used for the book ‘Bryant & May and the Bleeding Heart’, where a young man witnesses the strange event that sets in motion the story’s murder plot.

I picked the little park because only locals know of it (it can hardly be seen from the street) and it  served as the graveyard for two churches, one of which is Hawksmoor’s St George’s on Bloomsbury Way. It’s a place where local workers go to eat their sandwiches at lunchtime, without realising that beneath their feet are buried Richard Cromwell’s favourite daughter, Macaulay’s father, Jonathan Richardson the painter, Robert Nelson, author, Nancy Dawson, hornpipe dancer at Old Drury and Eliza Fenning, a cook, who was hanged at Newgate in 1815 for attempting to poison a family in Chancery Lane. Everyone is equal in death.

The little gardens also have a claim to notoriety – it was here that the first indictment for stealing a body for dissection resulted in a sensational trial. It had to be my start-point for the novel. During the Lockdown some of these small spots have revealed themselves more clearly.

Bloomsbury Square, lovely but usually overcrowded with tourists, was suddenly filled with birdsong again. The traffic had calmed to the point where you could follow the conversations of others (the writer’s joy). In the park’s café, run since I was a kid by the same Italian family, I overheard an earnest young woman pleading with the owner.

‘I respect the right of pigeons to live with nature but they make such a mess. In Trafalgar Square they use an eagle to keep them away from people. Couldn’t you do that?’ (I presume she meant a falcon.)

‘No, lady,’ replied the manager, ‘and let me tell you why. I spoke to the eagle people and they charge £150 an hour for the clearance, so if I add that to all the hours customers sit outside that’s £40,000 a year and our profits wiped out. All for your pigeons.’

They were still arguing when I left.

I wonder, can cities renew their quirky corners now and regain their character?

One fantasy is that with the virtual collapse of inner city centres (it’s estimated that over 30% of all London office workers will never return) blank office blocks inside the Polo Mint will return to housing, and create neighbourhoods once more.

Developers can see that nobody wants to live in an inner city ghost town, and instead of keeping others out are encouraging them in, allowing children in fountains and families onto once-closed lawns. Measures that were designed to keep us all apart could bring us together, except in the Crown Estates, where beautiful squares remain stubbornly closed (see Bryant & May: ‘Wild Chamber’) and reserved for owners who in many cases have never even visited their portfolio investments.

Department stores in the West End are now planning to turn parts of their buildings into offices and even flats, although presumably they’ll be aimed at millionaires again. The old Camden library, an ode to seventies design that was lost for years beneath sleeping addicts and city grime, was restored and revealed as an architectural marvel, now repurposed as a hotel, bar and café, which I tried out with Joanne Harris one evening (they’ve kept a lot of the books on the shelves).

The alleys around railway stations have either been opened into street markets, like Vinegar Yard at London Bridge and Maltby St Market, or have been rethought to allow sometimes startling views that were not available before, rather in the same way that cities like Budapest have developed streets to afford views of treasured architecture.

Whatever one thinks of London’s infinite renovations – mere tarting up or genuine concern for the city fabric? – it’s good that many rescued dying and dangerous neighbourhoods. Londoners have never wanted their city preserved in aspic so that visitors can have the clichés confirmed. But the good work is now in risk of sliding backward as a second wave arrives and closures hollow out the inner city.

I’ve started passing dried-up fountains and litter-clogged design features that looked good when they were well kept by armies of staff. With few able to risk public transport by returning to office hours, the inner city situation can only worsen for now. 

 

22 comments on “Another London Walk Part 1”

  1. Paul C says:

    This excellent post is better than any of the national newspaper columnists I read over the weekend. Perhaps you should write a weekly newspaper column and get paid for the time and energy you clearly spend on these pieces.
    They should be enjoyed by a much wider readership.

  2. Liz Thompson says:

    This and the photos are marvellous.

  3. Peter Dixon says:

    Strikes me as a bit pointless turning shops into offices when people aren’t returning to the offices that already exist. Empty streets, abandoned businesses and dried up fountains sounds very Ballardian.

  4. admin says:

    If only, Paul. Top press slots are so few and far between that they tend to go to cronies. But here’s a piece I wrote about my family for The Guardian. https://tinyurl.com/y8dbfl83

  5. Davem says:

    Great post Chris, thoroughly enjoyed that … and loved the photos too.

    Looking forward to the next two parts.

  6. Jan says:

    Now Here’s a thing ( Oh s**t sighs Fowler she’s @ it again)

    St George’s Bloomsbury the Church served by this cemetary turned funny lttle garden a is Hawksmoor church one of his super duper weirdo constructions which as we have discussed before I think have little to do with Christianity.

    Hawksmoor, Wrens favourite pupil, and his master are alleged to have incorporated into the fabric of each church various Masonic symbols. Each and everyone of these churches incorporates a triangle either within the churchyard (Spitalfields a pyramid in the churchyard) St Anne’s Limehouse (freestanding pyramid in churchyard) In his church in the City @ Lothbury whose name I have temporarily forgotten the one that had its crypt destroyed for Bank station has a triangle carved in the pulpit. At St George’s named for the Hanoverian King (the 2nd or 3rd) not the Turkish Dragonslayer is largely a reproduction of the Tomb of Harlicanasus (if that’s the right spelling it’s a miracle) St George’s is a series of triangles each one on on top of the other a very odd thing altogether.

    Restored with lottery dosh through the 1990s St George’s is a place worth seing. Strange, atmospheric and very odd. In fact there’s articles on the computer ‘re Hawksmoors London churches a subject well worth research. They are strange( Lousy St. Lukes is a smasher) I dunno what Hawksmoor was up to precisely but his work is worth ten minutes of your time.

  7. Helen Martin says:

    Mind you, the triangle is a basic symbol for Christianity and is easily incorporated into decoration. Pyramids not so much and more likely to have that masonic connection, unless they are referencing the Israelites’ period of slavery in Egypt. Is there an implied function for those pyramids or do they just sit there waiting for some bird to land?

  8. snowy says:

    ‘Egyptomania’ seems to return to the popular consciousness/is rediscovered about every 50-75 years, [we might even be due for another one soon].

    1970s King Tut’s World Tour, 1920s Carter opens the tomb, mid to late 1800s Great Exhibition/Arrival of Cleo’s Needle, early 1800s Nelson’s victory on the Nile.

    I can’t track what might have set Nicky off, it can’t all of been down to the knee-flashers, but there was definitely something floating about because in 1705, Thomas Greenhill, surgeon, had published ‘Nekpokedeia: or, the Art of Embalming’, [subtitled *deep breath* ‘Wherein is Shown the Right [sic] of Burial, and Funeral Ceremonies, Especially That of Preserving Bodies After the Egyptian Method.’ ]

    [If you go down that particular rabbit-hole, you will certainly bump into Hannah Beswick [1688-1758], the ‘Manchester Mummy’. She probably moved about a bit more dead than she did alive: Ancoats Hall, Sale, Museum of the Manchester Natural History Society, before ending up in Harpurhey Cemetery.]

  9. Jan says:

    Pyramids are only one e.g. Helen there are others which tbh I can’t remember!

  10. Lyn Jackson says:

    Agree with Paul C. Great articles .Always interesting to read.

  11. Dawn Andrews says:

    An eagle is Trafalgar Square, hmmmm.
    ‘Do you remember when there were pigeons here, dear?’

  12. Ian Luck says:

    A youtube channel I’m fond of is by a bloke who calls himself ‘Jago Hazzard’. He does various types of videos – about the underground, trains, beer, and walking about odd little corners of London. He sounds a bit like the brilliant Jon (‘Cabin Pressure’) Finnimore, and has a very dry sense of humour. His videos are short, and to the point. Well worth a watch.

  13. Dawn Andrews says:

    The photos of parks and graveyards are very moving to me as when I lived in London I looked for such spaces, and recognise some here. The Guardian piece is great and I also agree with Paul C.

  14. Brian Evans says:

    Ian, thanks for the Jago Hazzard tip. It looks good, so that takes care of the next few evenings.

  15. Peter T says:

    Great post; brings back some happy memories.

  16. Kate says:

    I am in Venice right now and your phrase “ How can a city move on” is a very topical question here. I enjoy walking in London and looking up and sideways as I go. Sometimes it is a relatively small architectural detail that delights and sometimes the atmosphere in quiet alleys results in time travelling. On a smaller scale you can have a similar experience in Venice. Covid has intensified the debate re banning cruise ships, limiting Airbnb and how to enable more Venetians to actually live on the island. In London I am unhappy re the approved development next to the Tower of London. Do you think that there is any chance of cold feet getting in the way ?

    During my time away I have been rereading Wild Chamber and it was still a really good read second time round. Serendipitously I chanced on your post. Many thanks for it.

  17. Kimi HIAPO-MATTHEWS says:

    I’m just reading Bleeding Heart right now, loving the part where Banbury makes an arrest. You’re a great writer. It’s the storytelling. Bonus: I’ve come across more new words in the 6 or 7 of your books I’ve read than in all the other reading I had done in the previous 30 years combined.

  18. Jo W says:

    * Ian Luck. I liked Cabin Pressure and still find it occasionally on radio four extra. If Jago Hazzard is as good as that I’ll search out his you tube posts. Thank you for the tip.

  19. Barbara Allan says:

    Great blog. Thank you. Reminded me of y time living in Judd Street.

  20. Weren’t most churches built by masons. Actual stone workers?

  21. Neal says:

    Thanks for this Christopher, as an ex-Londoner (oh, alright, Bromley boy!), trapped in sweltering Singapore for the time being I’m really missing London’s architecture, variety of neighbourhoods and the change of seasons too. At least my copy of Oranges & Lemons arrived recently – aircon up, kettle on and settle in!

  22. Jeffrey Prior says:

    I bought a round of 3 drinks in the Standard Bar and it cost me £33.00. Places like this will really get ordinary families moving into central London again!

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