Another London Walk Part 1
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.