diamond geezer

 Thursday, September 20, 2018

1 mile from central London

The centre of London is generally taken to be Charing Cross, specifically the statue of Charles I in the middle of the roundabout. For today's post, I've visited the points one mile due north, one mile due east, one mile due south and one mile due west, to see what's there. Regular readers will recognise this as another in my long-running series "Using Some Kind Of Geographical Rationale To Pick Pseudo-Random Locations In The Capital And Reporting Back On What I Find".

ONE MILE NORTH: Russell Square
(western corner, by the Cabmen's Shelter)

The Little Green Hut in the corner of Russell Square is one of just 13 remaining Victorian shelters providing rest and sustenance for London's cabbies. They get to hide away inside with a cuppa and a fry-up, but anyone can step up to the hatch and place an order. A cup of tea's a quid and the holy grail of an egg and bacon roll is £3.20, the same price as a liver sausage baguette. The hut's exterior is draped with hanging baskets, tubs and bunting, while two tubs of geraniums brighten the outside benches. Why so many students are heading back to lectures clutching a Costa remains a mystery.

The red phone box by the garden gates is locked. Inside are a stool, a shelf and a couple of power points, courtesy of the Pod Works mini-office start-up, although they've gone bust so the computer screen is missing and the clock's stuck on 00:00. At least ten trucks and trailers are parked around the square facing Senate House, hired from Bristol TV Film Services, whose catering staff are tidying away the serving trays after the lunchtime rush. I don't know what they're filming, but the names stuck to the dressing room doors suggest I should look out for Camille, Heather, Jake and Sebastian in the credits at a later date.

Through the gates, Humphrey Repton's restored gardens are primed for relaxation and recuperation. A woman sits cross-legged on the grass beside a suitcase, reading a book. The approach of a sleek black labrador startles a group of pigeons. A small boy kicks through the bare minimum of fallen leaves. Four office workers arrive in sports clothes and proceed to jump, squat, jog and wave their arms, or indeed any other athletic movement the fifth member directs them to perform. A whiff of spliff walks by. Two students are practising their lines from a playbook. A woman on an electric tricycle circles the lawn before spotting an empty bench and occupying it with a beer and a sandwich. Someone's attempting one last sunbathe before autumn draws in. Plane trees rustle. Fountains gush.

ONE MILE EAST: Blackfriars Road
(just south of Blackfriars Bridge)

Queues of cars and vans and trucks and taxis line up in four directions, awaiting permission for onward passage. Cyclists have their own separate highway, busy enough that when a recovery truck driver jumps the lights and attempts to drive across it, a display of raised fists holds him back. The wind whips one man's spectacles into the path of a stalled taxi, which thankfully sticks at red long enough for the myopic stooge to locate his prey. A woman walks past clutching six kitchen rolls, a Kinder Bueno and two pints of milk. A cloud of unseen raspberry vapour lingers. Whoever commissioned the streetsigns which spell out 'Blackfriars Road' did so in a jarringly over-emboldened typeface.

Utterly dominant hereabouts is the 52-storey boomerang of One Blackfriars, whose marketing team's desire that Londoners would come to call it The Vase has understandably not come to pass. Those with business or an apartment within disappear through its revolving doors into a luxurious lobby. Mere hoi polloi can perch outside on the rim of what passes as a garden - three raised beds filled with immaculate plants and a wet riser inlet disguised as a silver globe. The white flowers in that tasteful tub at the rear turn out to be artificial. Sealed off behind temporary barriers is the low-rise chunk of the development, Sales And Marketing Suite Now Open.

Not to be outdone, the opposite side of the road awaits transformation into Bankside Quarter, a significant destination gateway (insert your own buzzword here). The previous office blocks were deemed wasted potential so have been demolished, and will soon arise as a cluster of rigidly orthogonal towers with no aesthetic sympathy for the giant banana across the way. 40% of future residents will get a parking space, because transport policies are for flouting, and Southwark council are more than happy with the windfall. A tiny suggestion box is attached to the hoardings, although it's too late to complain now.

ONE MILE SOUTH: John Islip Street, Millbank
(just north of Tate Britain, by the junction with Marsham Street)

One road back from Millbank, all is quiet. John Islip Street is a road of two halves divided, roughly at the point where I'm standing, into an unchanged older part and a sleeker modern quarter. The older part includes what looks very much like an atypical council estate, with four parallel blocks named after painters, the exterior perfectly maintained and the courtyard sparkling with potted flowers. Across the street is Tate Britain's administrative building, where the offices are, with a splendid redbrick frontage topped by a sugar-magnate crest. Lorries creep in up the side. Occasionally a lowly member of staff pushes the binbags out on a trolley.

Across the fault line is Millbank Court, a quintessentially 1970s concrete apartment block with pebbledash inserts, and a first floor lobby extending forwards between granite slabs. It looks the ideal place for a secret agent's liaison - MI5 are based just around the corner - or somewhere a provincial parliamentarian might have their pied à terre. The DoubleTree Hilton is a more recent intrusion, all glass and taxi bay, whose menu looks reasonably priced until you spot the small print saying "dishes are small and designed to share - we recommend three per person".

The pavement outside Abell House has been sprayed with red, white and blue marks, including the location of an Empty Duct. A helicopter flies across. Three workmen sit chatting on a gap in the topiary, then move to stand outside a garage door, then disappear. A stream of civil servants and Burberry employees drip down from the top of the street. It's not hard to deduce who's who.

ONE MILE WEST: Audley Square, Mayfair
(on South Audley Street, behind the Dorchester)

Mayfair is a different world. Its streets are old and narrow, and plied by a better class of vehicle. Five consecutive taxis drive towards me along South Audley Street, which I suspect isn't in any way abnormal. One drops off a headscarved woman outside The Embassy Of The State of Qatar, where the doorman checks she has appropriate business to be allowed inside. Across the road is a Merc with diplomatic plates, and another with the personalised registration QTR 1 (the first letter of which must've involved some high-level string-pulling). Yet another Merc is parked up round the corner with a chauffeur at its wheel, awaiting the call to action.

Most of the men who walk by are middle-aged, wearing suits in fractionally different shades of blue. One couple are carrying a property portfolio. The handsome sandstone building at number 2 Audley Square, with the cornucopia relief, has been owned by the University Women's Club since 1921. A Union Jack is wrapped several times around its flagpole. The sash-windowed townhouse nextdoor at number 3 is perfectly presented, and conceals a luxury 5-bed dwelling with knockthroughs and basement swimming pool behind its flawless facade. But number 4 is missing, as are the former 5, 6 and 7, because the remainder of Audley Square is a levelled demolition site behind a wall of blue hoardings.

What's been taken down is a public multi-storey car park inserted in 1962 and the disused petrol filling station behind, to make way for "the finest residential apartment building (and facilities) ever built in Mayfair and in the wider London area". The billionaire speculator making this massive boast is John Caudwell, former owner of Phones4U, whose snail's pace project was only given the go-ahead when he agreed to build some affordable housing three streets away in a former street-sweeping depot. He bought the site for £155m, but hopes to flog the three penthouses for £100m each, which should make the lower 27 apartments pure profit. One mile from the centre of London, a whole lot of shenanigans are going on.

I suspect this is a numerical feature which could run and run...

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jack of diamonds
Life viewed from London E3

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