Tuesday, August 31, 2004
Local history month - August 2004
So, that was the street on which I work. That was Piccadilly. It's taken a month to travel from one end to the other, whereas you could probably walk the real thing in 20 minutes flat. It's a fascinating street I hope you'll agree, and a street which previously didn't seem to have its own decent webpage anywhere. And now it does. You can read the whole of Piccadilly local history month here, on one page, uninterrupted. I'm rather pleased with it. And you should see where I've got lined up for you next August...
posted 07:00 :
Famous places down the street where I work
Hyde Park Corner
And finally, at the foot of Piccadilly, it's central London's biggest roundabout. Traffic swirls round this nightmarish gyratory system where five major streets meet, the road up to seven lanes wide. This spot could equally have been called Green Park Corner, or Mayfair Corner, or Belgravia Corner, or Buckingham Palace Corner, but Hyde Park won the day. In the centre of the roadway lies a large grass triangle liberally scattered with monuments and sculpture, and there's also the only pelican crossing I've ever seen with the pushbutton located eight feet up the pole so that it can be used by mounted horseriders. The outside and inside are joined by well-maintained pedestrian subways, each illustrated by scenes from local history.
Here's a look at the roads around the perimeter, clockwise from the North:
N (Park Lane): Once just a small track running down the side of Hyde Park, the idyllic views soon made this one of the most desirable addresses in the capital. It's the second most valuable property on the Monopoly board, which is kind of appropriate because during the 20th century roughly every four houses here were exchanged for a hotel. Now a six-lane superhighway and luxury car showroom.
NE (Piccadilly): Come on, you must know all there is to know about this street by now.
SE (Constitution Hill): This road (closed Sundays) leads down to the gates of the Buckingham Palace. At the top of the hill stand new memorial gates commemorating the wartime sacrifice of soldiers from across the Commonwealth.
S (Grosvenor Place): This is the main road down to Victoria, along which the very last no 73 Routemaster will set off just before 1am this Saturday morning. You can see into the Queen's back garden from the top deck.
W (Knightsbridge): This isn't the posh end of Knightsbridge, that's further west, but this is still the only London street name written with six consecutive consonants. Hyde Park Corner tube station is here, the original ticket hall now occupied by a pizza restaurant.
Meanwhile, in the centre:
The Constitution Arch: Before the Duke of Wellington was even dead, the people of Britain were busy erecting monuments to him outside his house. As well as a nude statue of Achilles in the park, they also placed a giant statue of the Duke across the road on top of the recently-constructed Constitution Arch. Alas the statue looked wildly out of proportion for its location and was eventually relegated to Aldershot, being replaced 30 years later by the magnificent winged statue of Victory pictured here. A suite of rooms at the top of the arch housed London's smallest police station, with a staff of 10 constables, two sergeants and a cat, although this closed in 1968 and the inside of the arch is now open to the public.
Another statue of Wellington: This one faces across the traffic towards Apsley House and shows the Duke sitting on his favourite horse, Copenhagen.
Australian War Memorial: Finally here's London's newest war memorial, opened last Remembrance Day by the Queen and Prime Minister Howard (that's the Australian PM, whatever were you thinking?). It's a striking curved wall of granite, etched with the names of the 24000 home towns of the Australians who served during the two world wars, across which can be picked out the names of 47 important battle sites. This reflective spot is a world away from the self-importance of Piccadilly Circus, right up at the other end of the street in which I work.
posted 06:30 :
Monday, August 30, 2004Medal-ing
After 17 memorable days in Athens that's the final race run and the final Olympic medals awarded. And didn't we do well? No really. Tenth place is so much better than we should have expected given that the UK is only the 21st largest country in the world in terms of population. We thrashed countries twice as big as ourselves (Nigeria, no gold medals), three times as big (Brazil, 4 gold medals), four times as big (Indonesia, one gold medal) and even 17 times as big (India, no gold medals). Just think population before you think medals and we've had a remarkably successful Games. To illustrate what I mean, here's the final medal table with the added statistic of world population ranking:
Country popn G S B 1 USA 3rd 35 38 29 2 China 1st 32 17 14 3 Russia 7th 27 27 38 4 Australia 52nd 17 16 16 5 Japan 10th 16 9 12 6 Germany 14th 14 16 18 7 France 20th 11 9 13 8 South Korea 25th 9 12 9 9 Italy 23rd 9 11 11 10 Great Britain 21st 9 12 12
China may be by far the most populous nation on the planet but they didn't manage to top the medal table. In contrast every other country in the top 10 has done better than their population might have suggested, Australia especially so. Our antipodean cousins, with a population of just 20 million, have performed superbly to appear as high as fourth place. The Olympic medal table is therefore fatally flawed. All countries compete in the current table on equal terms, despite the fact that they have vastly different human populations of potential athletes to draw upon. This should be rectified by taking into account the size each country when drawing up the list. I'd like to propose the introduction of 'millions per gold medal' as a much better indication of sporting excellence. China has a population exceeding 1¼ billion, which rates as a massive 40 million citizens required per gold medal. Australia in contrast earned one gold medal for roughly every million inhabitants, a much more impressive ratio. Here's how the revised Olympic medal table would stand if the millions/goldmedal factor were included:
Country G popn m/gm 1 Bahamas 1 0.3m 0.30 2 Norway 4 4.5m 1.14 3 Australia 17 20m 1.17 4 Hungary 8 10m 1.25 5 Cuba 9 11m 1.26 6 New Zealand 3 4m 1.33 7 Jamaica 2 2.7m 1.36 8 Greece 6 10.6m 1.77 9 Sweden 4 9m 2.25 10 Georgia 2 4.7m 2.35
Congratulations to the Bahamas, the tiny islands whose gold in the women's 400m puts them deservedly at the top of diamond geezer's new medal table, up from a lowly 52nd in the real ranking. Norway leap up to second, and hosts Greece have also done particularly well, their six golds meriting 8th place in the revised list. China, in contrast, plummet from real 2nd to only 53rd in the new table, and the United States tumble from 1st to 34th. That's more like it I think, a much fairer representation of national strength. Maybe we should introduce this new ranking method in time for the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. And the UK? Our impressive haul of nine golds rates at just 6.7 million inhabitants per gold medal, which puts us... ah, only 29th. Forget I ever suggested it...
posted 08:00 :
Famous places down the street where I work
Apsley House (149 Piccadilly)
Right at the bottom of Piccadilly, just past the junction with Park Lane, the very last house before Hyde Park is Apsley House, the former home of the Duke of Wellington. Approaching from the opposite direction this grand house was the first to be encountered after the tollbooth at Knightsbridge, and so earned the alternative address "No. 1 London". Wellington snapped up the house when he returned victorious from his military campaigns in France, seeking a London base from which to launch a glittering political career. He extended the house, including the spectacular 90ft long Waterloo Gallery, and within a decade had risen to the post of Prime Minister. A census entry for 1851 shows 81 year-old 'Arthur, Duke of W.' still resident at Apsley House along with 14 household staff, although he was to die at his home in Kent the following year. The seventh Duke of Wellington gave the house to the nation following the death of his father in World War Two, and the family still live in their ancestral home in private rooms at the rear. Apsley House was taken over by English Heritage earlier this year, admission £4.50, closed Mondays (except bank holidays, should you fancy popping down later).
posted 07:30 :
Sunday, August 29, 2004Ringing the changes
After 2½ faithful years my good old T68 mobile phone finally started showing signs of distress last week. Screens froze, buttons took three presses to function and, most distressingly, half my address book made itself invisible. It was time to get a new phone. Pity, because my T68 used to do everything I required of a mobile and no more, and was still in very good physical condition too. I upgraded at the Orange shop on High Holborn (good choice - I appeared to be the only customer of the day), emerging half an hour later clutching a cutting-edge K700i. Plug in, charge up, wait.
Blimey hasn't mobile phone technology moved ahead in the last 2½ years? It's all very impressive, though I have yet to be convinced that any of the new stuff is actually useful. I can now play some very flashy new Java games, except I don't want to play the three arcade nightmares they've given me and I'm already pining for the nice simple Patience on my old phone. I have a narrow selection of ringtones that sound as if they were written by some 80s club singer on his Bontempi organ, and nothing at all that sounds even vaguely like a proper phone ringing. I can download more of all these of course, but at extortionate cost. It seems that what I used to take for granted for free is now an optional extra courtesy of my profiteering phone network. Still, I do now appear to have an FM radio which could be useful, and I've downloaded the old BBC test card for free as my wallpaper so I think I may survive. Now, if only somebody would actually ring me up or send me a text message I could find out how some of the more important features actually work...
posted 10:00 :
Famous places down the street where I work
The InterContinental hotel (1 Hamilton Place)
Most of the lower end of Piccadilly is given over to the hotel trade, which is not surprising given that Park Lane is just around the corner. Right where the two roads meet stands the InterContinental Hotel, a particularly ugly 70s block which would look more at home in some eastern European capital. Tim Moore in Do Not Pass Go describes the hotel as "constructed in apparent homage to an irregular stack of fruit boxes behind a supermarket checkout" and it's hard to disagree. The hotel's not famous for anything at all, but the buildings it replaced most certainly are.
145 Piccadilly was bought by Albert and Liz Windsor in 1927. You probably know them better as King George VI and the Queen Mother, but at the time they were merely second in line to the throne and completely ignorant of their later destiny. Baby Elizabeth had been born the previous year just up the road in Mayfair, at 17 Bruton Street off Berkeley Square, but 145 Piccadilly was to be her childhood home. The whole top floor was turned into a nursery which she shared with her sister Margaret Rose, and both were educated privately here by governesses. Their grandfather King George V died in January 1936, succeeded by their uncle Edward VIII who lasted only 11 months on the throne before abdicating in disgrace. Mother Elizabeth was at home in bed with the flu at 145 Piccadilly when the announcement was made, saying "We must take what is coming to us and make the best of it." The new Royal Family moved out to Buckingham Palace two months later.
144 Piccadilly nextdoor was the site of a famous squat in the troubled summer of 1969. The London Street Commune moved into the huge empty building under cover of darkness, barricading themselves inside against the police and arming themselves with roof slates, stones, iron bars and a surprisingly large number of water-filled plastic balls. Over 500 squatters took part, protesting against the inequality of homelessness, but drug dealers and bikers gradually took over and the police faced little opposition when they stormed the premises six days later. Maybe demolition workers should storm the current hotel sometime soon - it could only be an improvement.
posted 07:00 :
Saturday, August 28, 2004Soup - er, natural? You know what Heinz Cream of Tomato Soup tastes like? Well no, you probably don't any more because they've just changed the recipe to make it 'healthier'. Heinz blitzed supermarkets this week to clear out supplies of the old stock and replace it with hundreds of thousands of cans of the new. Here's how a typical 400ml can of Britain's favourite comfort food measured up before and after the great switchover:
Ingredients Old soup New soup Tomatoes 74% 84% Sugar 21g 20g Fat 14g 12g Salt 6g 3g Price 49p-ish 59p-ish
See how much healthier they've made it? Lots more tomatoes, a scrap less sugar and fat, but half the salt. Just as well, because the original soup contained an adult's entire daily recommended salt intake in one can. And the cost to the consumer of this health-repositioning - a whopping 20% price increase. Having tried a mug of the new stuff this lunchtime I can't say I noticed much of a difference, except to my pocket. It still tastes as good as it always used to, maybe a bit more tomatoey, and it still stains your shirt orange if you spill some. I'm just slightly unnerved how bad for me the original soup used to be, and that Heinz appear to be charging me a premium for taking the unhealthy stuff out.
posted 14:00 :
Famous places down the street where I work
The Hard Rock Cafe (150 Old Park Lane)
You can find Hard Rock Cafes all over the world, from Acapulco to Yokohama, but the very first Hard Rock Cafe opened right here in Piccadilly in 1971. Americans Isaac Tigrett and Peter Morton opened up a glorified burger restaurant in an old car showroom close to Hyde Park Corner, slowly covering the walls with rock 'n' roll ephemera. Londoners and tourists came flocking (burgers were kind of new back then) and by 1982 the restaurant was successful enough to be opening up in new locations back in the States. Now there are 100 HRCs worldwide, and the global theme-dining phenomenon has been copied by Planet Hollywood amongst others, but the original restaurant here still pulls in tourists in their droves. If you come down, prepare to queue.
Nextdoor to the cafe is the Hard Rock store, selling sweatshirts, t-shirts and stacks of other branded clothing to devotional visitors. There's a rock museum in the basement called The Vault which is essentially a shrine to the guitar. Come kneel before Jimi Hendrix's Flying V, see strings once plucked by a Sex Pistol and try to make out John Lennon's original scrawled lyrics to Imagine. There's nothing here that would challenge the musical sensibilities of a middle-aged Mid-west American (more Morrison than Morrissey). But the restaurant has good reviews, so if you fancy eating Hickory Bar-B-Que Chicken sitting beneath Tommy Lee from Motley Crue's drum kit then rock on down. As the restaurant website says it's "more fun than watching the hands move round Big Ben", and who am I to argue?
posted 08:00 :
Friday, August 27, 2004Famous restaurants named after but not actually in the street where I work
The New Piccadilly (8 Denman Street)
With only a few days of my time in Piccadilly remaining, I thought I'd better hurry up and visit one of London's finest remaining classic cafes. The New Piccadilly is an anachronism tucked away behind Piccadilly Circus in Denman Street, closer to Shaftesbury Avenue than to Piccadilly itself. The cafe shouldn't still be here, it should have been overtaken by the transatlantic burger & coffee invasion by now, but thank goodness it still survives because it's a delight.
I went for lunch, back in time to the 1950s, taking a red leatherette pew at a yellow formica table. A waiter resplendent in dazzling white uniform walked over with the facsimile Fifties menu, with 21st century prices scribbled on in blue marker pen. No tea was served here originally, that's a late addition to the traditional coffee and hot chocolate, but it's still very cheap at 50p a cup (or 30p with a meal). I was tempted by the all-day breakfasts (or 'egg dishes', as they're described here) and also by a number of the meat-based 'garni' dishes, but finally plumped for steak, chips and spaghetti (without the spaghetti). The steak was more grey than brown, and just a little wrinkly, but none the worse for it when doused in ketchup. After a platter piled high I was only just capable of ordering dessert, but the selection of steamed puddings for £2.20 was irresistable. My spotted dick arrived looking like Silbury Hill flooded in a deep ocean of custard, and was as delectable as anticipated. £10 plus tip all in. Bargain.
The owner, 61 year-old Lorenzo Marioni, looked up from the counter and said goodbye as I left. His father started this gem of a cafe in 1951, but the area is now scheduled for redevelopment and sky-high rents are crippling the business's balance sheet. Lorenzo's next goodbye may be his last. I exited past the bright pink espresso machine, out into the street where a big neon sign still shines the word 'EATS' at a world that's passed this place by. Get down here quick won't you, or you won't know what you've lost til it's gone.
posted 07:00 :
Famous objects down the street where I work
I-SPY : The Sights Of London
Porter's Rest (no 19)
From Eros the I-SPY trail takes you along Piccadilly - just the street for an interesting stroll. Near the end of it is the Porter's Rest - a useful plank if you carry a heavy load on your back.
Q. Which English town is mentioned on the "Rest"?
A. ................... I-SPY score (20)
So reads page 13 of the orange-covered I-SPY book I bought for just sixpence more than thirty years ago. In book number 11 (after On The Road and before Horses and Ponies) Big Chief I-SPY invited us Redskins to spot 70 London Sights, collecting points for every question we could answer along the way. Just 1250 points would have entitled me to the Tribal rank of 'Londoner - Second Class', but I only managed a measly 80 points because there was no Google at the time so you actually had to visit each site to work out the answers. The Porter's Rest question was one of those that eluded me when I was a kid so I decided to wander along yesterday lunchtime to read the brass inscription for myself. No porters were resting here, just two empty bottles of lager and a fat tourist waiting for a sightseeing bus.AT THE SUGGESTION OF R.A. SLANEY ESQ. WHO FOR 20 YEARS REPRESENTED SHREWSBURY IN PARLIAMENT THIS PORTER'S REST WAS ERECTED IN 1861 BY THE VESTRY OF ST. GEORGE HANOVER SQUARE FOR THE BENEFIT OF PORTERS AND OTHERS CARRYING BURDENS. AS A RELIC OF A PAST PERIOD OF LONDON'S HISTORY IT IS HOPED THAT THE PEOPLE WILL AID ITS PRESERVATION.Just 1150 points to go then. Odhu/ntinggo.
posted 06:30 :
Thursday, August 26, 2004Famous places down the street where I work
Down Street station (Down Street)
Which brings us to the disused Underground station. There used to be four tube stations down Piccadilly - Piccadilly Circus and Hyde Park Corner at each end and Dover Street and Down Street inbetween. All were constructed in 1906 for the Great Northern, Piccadilly & Brompton Railway (later the Piccadilly line) although Down Street opened a year later than the rest. Dover Street later became Green Park, its entrance shifted two streets to the west when a set of new escalators replaced the lifts in 1933. Down Street, however, didn't manage to stay open that long.
Down Street was built just a little to close too its neighbouring stations, just quarter a mile from each, so passenger traffic was never heavy. This is also a poor location for a station with most of the local residents happy to drive everywhere, or more likely be driven. Within two years some trains were passing through the station without stopping and in 1918 Sunday services were withdrawn altogether. Down Street limped on before closing completely in 1932 so that a new siding could be built in the tunnels instead, leaving the station conveniently empty a few years later when war broke out.
Down Street underwent a wartime metamorphosis so that government committees could hold their meetings here in complete safety. The premises were made bomb-proof, the platform edges were bricked off, a small telephone exchange was installed and one of the passageways was converted into a small meeting room. Gas-tight doors were installed, two bathrooms were plumbed in and a typing pool was set up at the foot of the spiral staircase. Some of the UK's first air-conditioning was installed, as well as a tiny lift that could accommodate only two people. The Railway Executive Committee met at Down Street on a regular basis, and sometimes Winston Churchill would hold meetings of the War Cabinet here. Underground access was still available from the driver's cab of any passing train. Above ground nobody passing by would have had any idea that decisions crucial to the outcome of the war were being taken in the tunnels 20 yards beneath their feet.
After the war Down Street was again deserted, with lighting and staircases maintained just in case they were ever needed as an emergency exit from the tunnels below. The ticket hall was converted into a shop and the station was forgotten. All was quiet until the 1990s when the London Transport Museum started arranging tours which a select few (and their cameras) were lucky enough to attend. Everyone reported on the unexpected blast of air up through the stairwell as trains whooshed through the platforms beneath, and all agreed that there was the most appalling stench coming from the corridor just past the furthest bathroom. Much of the original signage was still visible, both train and wartime related, as well as the corridor where the committee room used to be. The tours were vastly over-subscribed, but unfortunately insurance costs were too high and the subterranean visits ceased a few years ago.
Neil Gaiman's excellent (but rather weird) TV drama Neverwhere includes a cliffhanging visit to a fictional Down Street. Neverwhere is the wildly imaginative tale of London Below, into which falls the innocent Richard Mayhew. He meets an Angel called Islington, a girl called Door and the very evil Mr Vandemar and Mr Croup. Episode 1 opens with a chase filmed on the rickety old spiral staircase at Down Street, and later there are shots of a banquet filmed on what's left of the platform with real trains rushing past in the background. The BBC only ever screened the series once but thankfully it is available on video (and on DVD in America, where it's been an unexpectedly big seller). Highly recommended.
Visit Down Street (the street) today and the characteristic ox-blood design of a Leslie Green station is immediately apparent. A small locked door in the façade leads to the station itself, while the main ticket hall entrance is now occupied by the Mayfair Mini Mart. This tiny newsagents scrapes a living off the local hotel workers, embassy staff and tourists. It sells the usual magazines and confectionery, plus a range of chilled food, a grim selection of greetings cards and about five different types of manilla envelope. I popped in for a bar of chocolate, which alas is about as close as I'm ever going to get to journeying into the historic depths of this most fascinating of tube stations.
Down Street tours (absolutely marvellous links - go click)
Subterranea Britannica (3 detailed pages + photos)
Hywel Williams (2 detailed pages + photos)
Jonathan Halls' virtual tour (38 photos)
Abandoned tube stations
Down Street signs
Neil FAQ plot interview Annie h2g2 Amazon
posted 07:00 :
Wednesday, August 25, 2004If Olympics 2004 had been held in East London...
I've reported before from the site of London's proposed Olympic Stadium, just a few minutes walk from my house (report here). In eight years time Marshgate Lane Industrial Estate hopes to be home to world record attempts and world media attention. Last week it was home to four fridge-freezers and a karaoke machine, lying discarded on the pavement smack bang inside what may one day be the Olympic Stadium. I stood alone amongst the bleak rows of warehouses and small factories and tried to imagine what it would be like if the athletes, officials and spectators were here right now. What if Olympics 2004 had been held in East London...
The four fridge-freezers would have been plastered with the names of the Games' corporate sponsors.
The Olympic flame could have been powered by the huge tanks of industrial cooking fat currently to be found across the site.
Half the competitors would still be stuck in traffic on the Blackwall Tunnel Approach road.
The marathon would have gone past my front door, and Paula would have won it.
The whole world would have seen that the weather in London is 'always wet'.
The swimming could have been held in a flooded Victoria Park without the need to build a new 50m pool.
The canoeing could have been held across town in the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain (or the cycling, if dry).
London's obsolete transport network would have ground to a halt due to 'late running of engineering works at White City'.
Local muggers would have taken the medals in the wrestling, shooting and 100m sprint.
We'd all have stayed at home and watched everything on the telly rather than forking out £100 for a distant seat in the grandstand.
posted 07:00 :
Famous places down the street where I work
The River Tyburn
You can't see it these days, but one of London's lost underground rivers still crosses deep below Piccadilly on its way to the Thames. The river Tyburn rises at Shepherds Well in Belsize Park, just south of Hampstead, flowing south beneath Swiss Cottage to form the lakes in Regents Park. It continues under Marylebone, long buried by the urbanisation of the West End, and on beneath Oxford Street (once called Tyburn Road). It wiggles under Mayfair, skirting both Grosvenor Square and Berkeley Square, before curving to head directly beneath Shepherd Market. It's not clear precisely where the river crossed Piccadilly, but a look at the local contours suggests that it once flowed across the lowest point of the road, beside the Japanese Embassy along what is now Brick Street. You can still see the river's dry valley to the south in Green Park, heading towards the grounds of Buckingham Palace where the underground Tyburn still feeds the Queen's ornamental lake. From here the ancient Tyburn split in two, branching towards Westminster and Pimlico, so creating marshy Thorney Island on whose 30 acres Edward the Confessor chose to build Westminster Abbey.
Hmm, I sense there may be an entire local history month to be based on the lost rivers of London, so I'll stop there.
posted 06:30 :
Tuesday, August 24, 2004St Swithin's Day results - 40 days on
Hasn't the weather been awfully wet this summer? Well yes, actually it has, and I have the data to prove it. I've been checking the weather every day since July 15th to see if at least one raindrop fell on London, or not. It chucked it down back on St Swithin's Day, so the superstitious amongst you might have expected 40 days of rain, but that's not quite the way it turned out...
Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat July 15th: wet total: wet=24 dry=16
My data doesn't show a full 40 consecutive wet days, but it does show that a very disappointing 60% of the last 40 days have been damp. That's a lot higher than the average you might expect (which is just 30%) but it's not quite a complete washout. On the bright side the last week in July and the first week in August were really quite dry (if you ignore that one Tuesday of torrential flooding across the capital), and I'm particularly pleased to have chosen one of those two weeks for my week off work. Scanning the rest of the summer season, however, makes for grim reading with never more than two dry days in any other week. I guess we've been fortunate that at least most of our weekends have been dry, even if few weekdays followed suit.
St Swithin has been wrong every single year since records began. The most wrong he's ever been was back in 1976 when a thunderstorm on the evening of July 15th was followed by 38 days of scorching heatwave. 2004 actually rates as one of his better 'successes'. We've already suffered twice the average rainfall for August and there's still a full week of the month to go. Don't go blaming a dead archbishop for this, and don't blame global warming either, just blame an unusually southerly jet stream. Our weather is merely very good at being random, and next year should be completely different. Probably worth sticking the suntan lotion back in the bathroom cabinet until next summer then.
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