Tag Archives: London

Old St Paul’s Cathedral

The greatest wonder of the internet is how it has brought long-lost books back to life. Far from displacing the printed word, the web in fact makes more of it accessible. Old St Paul’s Cathedral by Canon William Denham is one long-lost wonder which anyone can find and enjoy via the Gutenberg Project.

The frontispiece of the book is a lovely illustration of Old St Paul’s, complete with spire, with Three Cranes Wharf in the foreground.

Old St Paul’s stood for nearly 600 years (1087 – 1666) and was the most famous victim of the Great Fire of London. It was falling into disrepair in the decades before the fire and it is a little-known fact that Sir Christopher Wren had been commissioned to supervise renovations before the fire. the wooden scaffolding built to facilitate repairs helped seal the Cathedral’s fate.

The spire was destroyed by lightning in 1561, which is why illustrations of the Great Fire show St Paul’s in its rather truncated form.

Denham’s book in its physical form is well worth seeking out. The original was an outsized hardback with dozens of illustrations by Wenceslaus Hollar, who surveyed St Paul’s in 1658. Packed with long-lost detail, the book lifts the lid on the life of what, along with the Crystal Palace and Ranelagh Gardens is one London’s greatest lost buildings. Here’s one snippet:

At one of these Whitsun festivals (it was in 1327) another procession was held, no doubt to the delight of many spectators. A roguish baker had a hole made in his table with a door to it, which could be opened and shut at pleasure. When his customers brought dough to be baked he had a confederate under the table who craftily withdrew great pieces. He and some other roguish bakers were tried at the Guildhall, and ordered to be set in the pillory, in Cheapside, with lumps of dough round their necks, and there to remain till vespers at St. Paul’s were ended.

The London We Love

Dartmouth in Devon has a bookshop called Compass Books. While browsing here while on a recent visit I found a stash of books about London from the 1930s, 40s and 50s. The prices and condition were good, and I snaffled the lot. Most were disappointing but one has proved a delight. The London We Love by G E Eades was published in 1946 and provides an overview of the city and its history.

Eades himself is an endearing guide. He introduces himself in the preface:

I am a London schoolmaster. I was born and educated in London; I have spent more than forty years teaching London boys and girls, and for the last twenty years I have been teaching grown-up people too, many of them my old scholars, about London and its story. I have been reading that story and wandering about in London studying its people and buildings ever since I was a London schoolboy; I have come to love London and I want you to love it too.

It sounds like Eades lived his life well and to the full.

Most delightful of all are the illustrations, which capture some of the personality of the city. Here are a few which capture the essence of London as it was, and sometimes still is.

The soldier above appears to be telling the mother of the boy that she should be standing on the right. Quite right too, but so much for chivalry! Apologies if this is slightly to the right, I blame my scanner.

Anyone who has played football at Market Road, near Caledonian Road tube will recognise the clock-tower in the above picture, and will instantly understand what the name refers to.

The header on my site also comes from the book. I’ve posted these pictures here to try and raise them from obscurity. If anyone likes them I shall post some more.

Old Euston station

When skirts were very large indeed: Euston, 1837

London’s first railway terminus was Euston. In fact, as Dan Cruikshank noted, it was the first railway terminus in any capital city in the world, opening in 1837 as the London gateway for the London to Birmingham Railway. Its rapid growth, and long-lost Doric Arch were emblematic of the railway age and Victorian progress. The ticket hall and waiting room, the largest in the world and later remodelled by Lutyens, were wonderful statements of the age. As London and Britain grew and thrived, so did Euston.

All of which may come as a surprise to anyone who has felt the shrinking feeling of ascending the escalator into the giant, airless and seatless concourse that is Euston today. The station is one of London’s most charmless buildings and there is no less fitting starting point for Britain’s greatest train journey, the Caledonian Sleeper to Fort William. Only after escaping the low-slung depths of the platforms and emerging up the Camden Bank does this and other journeys emerge into natural light. So how did we get here?

The clues are dotted around Britain. When the first railways into London were built they were forbidden to proceed, with the exception of the cut and cover (and therefore sub-surface) route to Farringdon, to stretch any further than what was then New Road, known today as Euston Road. At this thoroughfare the London to Birmingham Railway terminated, with only two platforms, opened in July 1837. Victoria had been Queen for a month. Had she popped up to Euston to see the train she would have seen trains being pulled in and out of the station using cables, which were used in lieu of locomotives until 1844, at the request of nimbyish Lord Southampton.

The station grew quickly as railway mania took hold, and in 1849 the Great Hall was built. Photos show a grand, classical building with sweeping staircases reminiscent of Grand Central Station, if smaller. Already in place was the Doric Arch – strictly a propylaeum – marking the entrance to the station. In those days the station was located a little further north than it is today, cut off from Euston Road by Drummond Street. The statue of George Stephenson, inventor of the Rocket (if not steam trains themselves) survives on the concourse today.

So far, so jolly nice, and Euston was the first of a fine triumvirate of stations on Euston Road, joined by Kings Cross in 1852 and St Pancras in 1868. But Euston didn’t last. The station was deemed too small and too inflexible to accommodate passengers, and too old-fashioned to do very much with.

Interestingly, efforts centred on saving the Euston Arch rather than the station building, which even to enthusiasts was a lost cause, too small and obsolete and not conducive to expansion. I wonder if a way might have been found today. The voices would surely have been louder.There are echoes of Penn Station in New York. After the Second World War got in the way of attempts to replace it in the 1930s, it finally fell in 1960 despite the best efforts of Sir John Betjeman and a host of other campaigners, and a group of young architects who scaled the arch and draped it with a banner demanding it be saved. The Euston Arch Trust article (sterling work boys, by the way) notes that even the demolition company tearing down the arch piece by piece – it was in too densely populated and built up an area to blow up, or else they would have done that – offered to store it somewhere to enable later reconstruction. It was to no avail. Down the road, St Pancras was saved from the wrecking ball but Euston and its arch was the one that got away.

Euston Arch 1896

And that, it seems, is that. No wonder Mancunians and Scousers are so snippy about London if this is their first impression.

There are plans for a new station to come with the high-speed line to Birmingham and beyond, one which rights some of these wrongs and even brings back, if not the booking hall and other fine rooms, the Doric Arch, now only otherwise referenced by the station pub which sold good real ale last time I visited. Remarkably, it was in part the decision to grant east London the 2012 Olympic Games which gave the cause some hope. Once these chunks of Yorkshire stone were torn down they were, in the main, chucked into a section of canal known as Prescott Channel, a flood relief flue near Three Mills Lock at Bromley-by-Bow. Take a bike ride down there sometime. Other bits ended up in the gardens and even walls of houses of those who demolished it. The Euston Arch Trust takes up the story.

Nothing remains of old Euston station building, but you can see two of the lodges at the entrance to the bus station in front of today’s Euston. A happy, geeky hour can be passed thumbing through a few books in the London Transport Museum‘s shop which has more pictures of old Euston and its demolition. Maybe a better memorial for a long-lost station is to visit some of Britain’s very fine stations that didn’t get torn to pieces as the car put the skids on our train network. Birmingham Moor Street, Newcastle and Huddersfield, as well as St Pancras, would be good places to start. In fact, that’s a recipe for an interesting tour of Britain.

Stop also at York, with its very fine curving trainshed, and stroll to the National Railway Museum. Here, on your left as you enter the main hall where the Mallard and other great engines live, are the magnificent wrought iron gates which once adorned the Doric Arch itself. It’s a long way from London, but a fitting resting place for a relic of the bold start of London’s railways.

Easter Island and the 2010 solar eclipse

This article first appeared, translated into Norwegian, in the March 2010 issue of Zine, hence Norwegian references.

Holidays are usually about chasing the sun. There may be the odd occasion when you choose to leave a beautiful country like Norway for somewhere wet and cold, but most of the time the quest takes us somewhere we can get a blast of tropical heat and a vitamin D overdose. It shouldn’t be a surprise then that eclipse chasing is, well, hot.

Earlier this year an annular eclipse – where the moon partially obscures the sun – provided a spectacular ring of fire visible from the Maldives, southern India, Sri Lanka and China. Many snowbirds who had flown south for the winter found themselves in the right place at the right time. The Eclipse lasted in parts for eleven minutes – the longest not only this century but also this millennia.

It’s not surprising then that Easter Island is proving quite a draw for eclipse chasers on July 11, when a total eclipse will pass over the heads of the islands famous statues for four minutes and thirty-nine seconds. The combination of somewhere utterly fascinating – and with a special pull for Norwegians brought up on stories of Thor Heyerdahl’s Pacific adventures – and an eclipse sounds almost too good to be true.

Hold on before you rush to book. Let’s consider what will await those who pay the inflated costs of getting to one of the world’s hardest-to-reach islands at eclipse time? I was lucky enough to visit Easter Island a few years ago, travelling from Santiago in Chile to Tahiti on the only international flight to pause and refuel here. In fact, the plane carries enough fuel to render the landing unnecessary, to counter the risk of there being no fuel available on arrival and the flight being stranded. There are also several domestic flights each week from the Chilean mainland to Easter Island.

I found the land of the moai a very special place, with an almost unbelievable history and sense of separation from the rest of the world. Visitors tour the island on horseback, on foot and by best of all by bike, and at night the main town of Hanga Roa rocks to a gentle yet inviting island ryhtmn. Like all remote islands it can have a lonely feel, and though I treasure having visited I was relieved when my flight came in. Now I’d return here before going anywhere else.

Tukuturi: aka the kneeling moai - and the only statue on the island with legs

Easter Island has only got more popular since then and flights haven’t got any less busy. Eclipse time will be the busiest of peak times. The islanders themselves are increasingly unhappy with the volume of tourists who visit – 70,000 came last year to a place with a permanent population of 2,500 – and it likely that every room on the island and then some will be filled up when with Eclipse chasers. This means big costs for those who do come. It may be the holiday of a lifetime, but be aware that it might take you that long for your wallet to recover. At least the enigmatic moai will be standing impassive and not asking visitors to pay a premium for a photo.

There’s one other risk worth considering. July is bang in the middle of the wet season and while blue skies are entirely possible, a cloudy day would not be unusual. The Total Eclipse which passed over the UK in 1999 did so through a blanket of cloud. I watched from the top of Parliament Hill in London, one of the city’s best vantage points, and the effect was a little like a series of progressively greyer clouds rolling over your head. Thousands of excited eclipse-watchers hooted and booed at the cloudy skies which seemed ridiculous at the time. We tramped back to the Lonely Planet office more than a little disappointed.

Viewing a solar eclipse may not be worth all the hype. There are certainly better times to come to Easter Island. But both are worth seeing and should have a space on every traveller’s must-see list. You could wait a year and see Easter Island at a quieter time, and make sure you’re closer to home on June 1 2011, when a partial eclipse will be visible over northern Norway. All this obeys one unwritten rule of travel: while you’ll want to go when everybody else does, it’s usually better to plan your trip for when the crowds are elsewhere.

Secret London: Happy Birthday, Herbert Chapman

Big Herb

On 19 January 1878 Herbert Chapman was born. 132 years later, he still has a convincing claim to be the greatest of all football managers. Best known for turning Arsenal from a middling First Division side into the great powerhouse of the pre-war game, he just as remarkably delivered an FA Cup and two league championships to Huddersfield Town, as well as establishing the momentum for their third. Chapman was a great innovator, modernising football formations and presenting compelling cases for numbered shirts, artificial pitches European club competition and floodlit matches.

Herbert Chapman's grave in St Mary's, Hendon

Chapman died on January 6 1934, mid-way through Arsenal’s hat-trick of titles, as a giant of the game. He is buried in St Mary’s Parish churchyard in Hendon, north-west London with his wife, Annie Bennett Chapman. Annie lived to see Arsenal win four more titles, passing away in 1958.

I paid a visit here with my youngest son, still too young to argue with such a silly outing, on Sunday. The churchyard is quiet, with a rural feeling harking back to Hendon’s pre-suburbia village life. It’s a pleasant, peaceful place to visit, though the wind gets up a bit on a Saturday afternoon if Arsenal are losing. And if you’re not in the area, there’s the Herbert Chapman pub on Holloway Road, bustling on matchdays, and the old East Stand at Highbury which his achievements made possible. Happy Birthday, Mr Chapman.

Return to Highbury

Saturday was an exciting day.

A friend invited us to his flat in the old East Stand at Arsenal Stadium (better known as the Gunners’ former home on Avenell Road, Highbury) for a drink and a stroll around the old place. In fact, being a man of impeccable taste he’d snaffled up the flat located exactly where we’d all sat for many years, just south of the halfway line, behind the away team’s greenhouse.

There’s still no place like home.

East Stand, Highbury

The Highbury Square development is largely complete, but there are obviously quite a few flats either unsold or not yet occupied. Those who are in there should count themselves lucky. The stadium is a unique development, with the classic East and West Stand facades retained and those in the East accessing thri flats by walking in through the Marble Hall. Herbert Chapman may have been moved from his plinth but the cannon and art deco crest remain in the floor, just like you remember it.

Best of all though is the communal garden, or the pitch as it was once known. OK, so it’s no longer got the touchline markings, but there’s no mistaking where you are once you walk out on it. Ghosts are out there with you enjoying a kickabout. Herb himself is doubtless looking down approvingly on such innovation.

Pictures to follow.

– Tom