Category Archives: Architecture

Secret London: torture at the Temple

In some parts of London you can travel in space as well as time. Take the Temple. This characterful cluster of medieval buildings, gardens, courts and alleys wedged between Fleet Street and the Thames seems to have been uprooted from an Oxbridge college and dropped brick-for-brick in central London, just a heartbeat from the Embankment.

The Temple is a maze of cobbled paths and narrow arched doorways leading to small courtyards that have names like Pump Court and King’s Bench Walk. Most of the buildings are offices occupied by lawyers – this is London’s legal quarter, where barristers receive their training – but the area is also popular with tourists, who have found their way into this most secluded spot. They are here to see the Temple Church, one of London’s oldest churches and, with its distinctive circular nave, also one of the most atmospheric. It’s a building that exudes medieval mystery, and rightly so. Temple Church was founded by one of the world’s most intriguing secret societies, and continues to exude a curious, almost sinister vibe, a feeling that there is more to the Temple than meets the eye.

Even those who know the place well can sense the mood. ‘Buildings have memories,’ says Oliver the verger. ‘And this building has seen some turbulent times.’ Oliver is an intense young man who holds the keys to the secret parts of Temple Church. But that must wait. First, he offers a potted history, one that explains why the Temple is off the beaten track but very much on the tourist trail.

The great London writer HV Morton wrote in 1951 that ‘The Temple brings into the heart of a great city the peace of some ancient university town and the dignity of a past age’, and although the Temple area is redolent of Oxbridge its holy centrepiece is actually a stand-in for a more distant city. The Temple Church was built by the Knights Templars in the twelfth century. The Templars were a holy order formed in 1118 to protect European pilgrims visiting the Holy Land. Their base in Jerusalem was supposed to be the site of the Temple of Solomon, so the warrior-monks became known as the Knights Of The Temple of Solomon of Jerusalem, soon shortened to Knights Templars. The Knights Templars had churches and land all over Europe. In London they settled in Holborn but moved nearer the river in 1162, where they built the church. This great round edifice, the New Temple, was consecrated in 1185. Its circular nave paid direct homage to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the idea being that Londoners could visit Jerusalem without leaving the city. Such symbolism was easily grasped by medieval worshippers, who understood how one place could represent another and how the present could fold into the past.

The Knights Templars’ management of the routes in and out of the Middle East soon brought them great wealth, with which came great power, with which came great enemies. Rumours – started by rivals in other religious orders and the nobility – began to spread of their nefarious conduct, and of their sacrilegious and obscene initiation ceremonies, which took place on sacred ground, in London’s case in the crypt beneath the church. It was said that members spat on the cross, worshipped cats and practised ‘unnatural vice’ with each together. As hostility heightened, the end was inevitable and bloody. Phillip IV of France, who, coincidentally no doubt, was heavily in debt to the order, arrested leading French Templars in 1307 and through torture and imprisonment, gained lurid confessions about their immoral conduct. The order was dissolved in 1312.

Although the end for English Templars was not quite so brutal, the abrupt dissolution of the order – and the rumours that surrounded it – has provided fertile ground for conspiracy theorists. Some argue that the Templars were abolished because they knew more about the origins of the organised church than they should, others claimed that the Templars did not disappear, but were merely pushed underground and continue to operate to this day as a clandestine force that shape the world order. Novelist Dan Brown seized on versions of these myths for his blockbuster ‘The Da Vinci Code’, and, having done his research, settled on Temple Church as a suitably spooky location for some key aspects of the action.

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Brown was doubtless drawn by the dominant feature of the church, the ten statues of knights that lie on their backs on the floor in the centre of the circular nave. These stone effigies of dead Templars are frozen in time like Neolithic humans dredged from a peat bog. Despite having lain here since the twelfth century (one, commemorating Geoffrey De Mandeville, is dated 1144 making it older than the church itself; it is said to be here, because no other church would bury him), some have sharp, fine feature, while others have faces melted by German incendiary bombs. All look like they are covering something, perhaps an opening to a secret chamber. They certainly appear to serve some function greater than mere decoration. When you stand in the airless centre of this strange church, looking at this ancient stonework, you can feel the clammy arm of history encircling you. For centuries, Londoners and travellers will have stood at this spot, and bar some cosmetic changes – the church has been refurbished three times, by Christopher Wren, by the ever-busy Victorians and after the Second World War – will have gazed upon the same sight. Nothing has changed.

Oliver the verger interrupts my reverie with some subtle key jangling. We head over to a small door, which he unlocks to reveal a spiral stone staircase. We are seeking the penitential cell. This is where the Master of the Temple – the gloriously authoritarian title given to the church’s head priest – used to punish the unholy. The unfortunate Walter Bachelor was left to starve to death in the penitential cell after disobeying the Master, which is a particularly serious form of penance  as you can’t really repent after you are dead. The cell is halfway up the stairs and now has the appearance of a broom cupboard. It’s tall, but narrow, so a man can stand but not lie flat. Most disturbingly, it has windows overlooking the interior of the church, so those sentenced to starve could look down upon the statues of the crusaders, who would bear silent witness to the suffering taking place above. When we talk of a punishment being medieval, this is what we mean.

Oliver does not enjoy talking about the penitential cell, understandably uncomfortable with such ugly things occurring in the place he has to work every day. He also maintains a theological distance. He says this cruel punishment must have been a Templar thing, nothing to do with the organised church of the time. The Templars, it seems, are destined to play the role of scapegoats for centuries to come.

Oliver and the current Master, though, are happy to play the Templar connection to their advantage when it suits. Dan Brown’s novel brought unprecedented interest in their church, and the Temple suddenly became a hit on the tourist circuit. The Master wrote a book debunking the myths and generally tapped into the new-found interest. Now ‘The Da Vinci Code’ fever has worn off, but the Church has stayed in travel guides on its own merits, remaining a must-see for tourists from all over the world. Here they learn about the Temple Church’s history after the order was dissolved. After passing into the hands of the crown, the surrounding Templar land was given to barristers in 1608. They had begun to locate here from around the fifteenth century. After receiving the land rent-free, the barristers agreed to maintain the church and the Master in perpetuity. The most colourful example of them protecting the church occurred in 1678 during an outbreak of fire. The junior barristers quelled the flames with beer; it took six years for them to settle the brewer’s bill.

In preparation for the arrival of the day’s first tourists – and some are already milling outside waiting for their chance to snoop the ancient masonry – Oliver throws open the vast West Door. This huge arched door opens on to an easily overlooked alleyway, on the opposite side of the church to the large square that fronts the main entrance. It is a magnificent piece, thick regal wood surrounded by an arch of elaborate carved stonework. Nobody knows its age, although Oliver points out that some of the faded figures are wearing buttons, which were supposedly unheard of in Britain before the fourteenth century as they were associated with Muslims, the very foe the Templars were formed to fight.

Standing in this quiet spot round the back of the aged church staring at a door that by implication if not construction dates back to the twelfth century, it is easy to feel that you have slipped through time. One London writer, James Bone, said in 1919 that ‘At Temple, you are as close as an echo to the past’. Here, the echo resounds loudest and longest.

Exploring the lost Lea Valley with Saint Etienne

The BFI have just released a fantastic DVD for London fans. A London Trilogy: The Films Of Saint Etienne collects the three documentaries Saint Etienne and director Paul Kelly made between 2003 and 2007. Finisterre, What Have You Done Today Mervyn Day? and This Is Tomorrow are three fine oblique celebrations/meditations of London esoterica, soundtracked by the band and also guided philosophically by band member and London nerd Bob Stanley (who once beat me in a London quiz with his excellently named team of ringers, The London Nobody Knows, the bastard).

As ever with the BFI, the extras are also superb, including a short film about the then little-known Banksy, three eulogies to lost London cafes and a piece about Monty The Lamb, North Hendon FC’s club mascot.

My favourite of the three main features is 2005′s What Have You Done Today Mervyn Day?, which tours the Lower Lea Valley, a then almost abandoned part of London that has since been covered by the Olympic Park. In 2007, I took a tour of the valley with Kieron Tyler, an archaeologist at the Museum of London who also happens to be a regular collaborator with Stanley and Saint Etienne. Here is what we found.

I’ve often wondered where the East End begins, but never realised there was an actual border: one that’s so physical, and so weird. The River Lea (or Lee – both are acceptable) rises in Luton and flows into London at Edmonton and then, via Hackney, Stratford and Bromley-by-Bow, into the Thames. It has been the municipal boundary between Essex and Middlesex since the sixth century. ‘When you’re on the Middlesex side, you’re in the City of London, and when you’re on the Essex side, you’re east of London,’ Kieron Tyler explains helpfully. Tyler is the Museum of London archaeologist responsible for assessing the archaeological potential of the 2012 Olympic site, large swathes of which straddle the Lea Valley. As a committed Londonist, he’s become fascinated by one of the capital’s oddest landscapes.

You see, the Lea is more than just a theoretical dividing line on an administrative map, it’s a deep, wide trench gauging out a huge chunk of prime London land and bordered on either side by reclaimed marsh, Victorian rubbish heaps and industrial wasteland that physically separate the communities on either side. Look at a map if you don’t believe me. The Lea Valley boasts that ‘A-Z’ rarity, actual blank space, spotted with grey squares and circles that are precise in form but vague in utility, listed only as ‘works’, ‘depot’ or ‘warehouse’. All roads over the valley are fast and functional, crossing as quickly as possible, unwelcoming to residents. It’s a no man’s land in which few Londoners live, or ever have.

‘It’s the whole nature and character of the Lea Valley itself,’ says Tyler. ‘The area either side of the banks has acted as a buffer zone, stopping development. Before the ice age, this entire area was a water-filled valley. As the tide level changed the water become marsh with water channels snaking through it. Looking at evidence from between the end of the last ice age to the early medieval era (the eleventh century), we can see the Lea stretching from Stratford Town Centre to Hackney Wick, with marsh all around. Marsh is a problem. You can’t build on marsh. You can graze cows on it, or grow plants, but you can’t build on it. That’s why the Lea Valley itself is a buffer, wider than the river itself.’

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We take the 308 bus from Stratford tube to New Spitalfields Market on the A12, a bleak block of urbanity that makes the North Circular look like the Cotswolds, and stroll down Quarter Mile Lane – a piece of gleaming new roadwork that, like a Sicilian motorway, ends abruptly, having gone nowhere – into Eastway Cycle Circuit. Buried somewhere on this meadow are the remains of Temple Mill, a thirteenth-century mill managed by the Knights Templar. The mill is one of many things lost in the mud, dumped on by successive generations who used the marsh as a rubbish tip (bits of the Euston Arch were chucked in the Lea in the 1960s), which Tyler hopes to uncover when work on the Olympics site begins.

One such buried treasure is the Lea’s first bridge. ‘Nobody knows how the Lea was first crossed,’ says Tyler. ‘The Roman London-Colchester road came up to the edge of the Lea Valley around Wick Lane and picks up on the other side, but we haven’t a clue exactly where and how they crossed.’

We do know that the focus for crossing the Lea moved south, with the construction of Stratford Langthorne Abbey in 1135, now covered by factories, railways and a sewage-pumping station. This bridge was called Queen Matilda’s Crossing after the yarn that it was built at the behest of the wife of Henry I, who almost drowned while trying to cross the old ford. It was the first stone arch bridge in Britain, and was called Bow Bridge because of its shape – a name that later lent itself to the area on the Middlesex side, Stratford-by-Bow, now shortened to Bow.

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The Lea isn’t the only river in the valley. Half-a-dozen other ditches, streams and rivulets snake through it. Tyler guides me, via the doomed Eastway Cycle Circuit, to Hennikers Ditch, a medieval drainage ditch that’s little more than a hollowed-out puddle. We cut right, through dense foilage – Japanese knotweed, the most invasive plant around – and join a rarely trod path along the bank of the sluggish Channelsea River, a stream supposedly dug by King Alfred to keep the Danes from sacking London that has been dated to the eleventh century. Within minutes, we’ve gone from the concrete Ballard-scape of the A12 to an otherwordly, overgrown terrain that Tyler suggests lacks only Ray Harryhausen’s jerky dinosaurs to give it that proper prehistoric appearance. Allotments overlook the stream, and Tyler points out one tumbledown shed that his team have identified as a World War II pillbox. The Channelsea is still fulfilling its original function of defending London from invasion.

After peering through a fence that guards the new Eurostar terminal at Stratford, we head back to the A12 and cross the Lea, via torturous means (the Valley is as hard to navigate as it ever was), to wander down the weird Waterden Road, an alienating thoroughfare that features the Kokonut Groove Nite Klub, a demolished greyhound stadium, a bus depot, an ‘International Christian Centre’ and a travellers’ site. There’s no sense of the famed East End community here; indeed, it’s hard to think of a more disconnected environment outside an American strip mall.

At the bottom, Waterden Road meets White Post Lane, crossing the Lee Navigation (spelling decreed by a 1570 Act of Parliament), a canalised section of the river that runs almost parallel to the Lea that was built in stages from the eighteenth century. With its arrival, the Valley became a centre for industry.

As the lost Temple Mill shows, mills have been located here for centuries. There’s Three Mills, recently the location of the ‘Big Brother’ house, and Wright’s flour mill, London’s last working independent mill. Slaughterhouses crossed the Lea after being banished from the City in the fourteenth century, and the remains of animals were used in a variety of Lea-side industries. Walls Matteson churned out sausages by the yard at Abbey Mills until the 1990s and animal bones were used for china, chemicals, candles, soap, glues and fertilisers. Chemicals for tanning skins came from Lea and it’s said the smell was so bad that, in the early seventeenth century, James I asked for work at the mill to stop before he travelled past. Not for nothing was it known as ‘stinky Stratford’. The ‘ready-made kebab’ factory at the bottom of Waterden Road seems aptly placed.

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Heavier industry soon moved in, boosted by an 1844 Act of Parliament that ruled that, within London, ‘offensive trades’ could not be located within 50 feet of a house. The Lea’s industrial alumni is formidable. Matchbox cars were made here until the 1980s. The diode valve was invented in Lea by Professor Ambrose Fleming in 1904, which led directly to the invention of the wireless; Britain’s first radio valve factory was established in Lea Valley in 1916, and the first television tube factory followed in 1936. Bryant and May had a match-making factory in Newham, which was the site of the landmark matchgirls strike in 1888. Monorail was invented in Lea in 1821. IPA was first brewed on the Bow riverbanks in the 1780s. The Yardley soap factory was on Carpenter’s Road, and the Lea is where the first British commercially successful porcelain, Bow China, was produced. AV Roe became the first Briton to pilot an entirely British-built aircraft on Walthamstow Marsh in 1909.

The Royal Small Arms Factory in Enfield produced the British Army’s Lee-Enfield rifle by the thousand (though unfortunately the Lee bit comes from its inventor, not the location), and also helped with the development of the bouncing bomb.It’s a rich history that, in a most un-London way, is celebrated by approximately nobody (although Saint Etienne’s film on the Lea Valley, What Have You Done Today, Mervyn Day? captured much of the weirdness). We’re at the junction of White Post Lane, Wallis Road and Hepscott Road, which, Tyler points out, is the location of ‘a conglomeration of late Victorian industrial concerns that either introduced a number of products to this country or were invented here or recast in their modern form’.

He’s talking about plastic, petrol and dry-cleaning, which all came from here. Carless, Capel and Leonard started making a product they named petrol in Hackney Wick in 1892. Before then it was called ‘unrefined petroleum’ and competitors continued to call it ‘motor spirit’ until the 1930s. A few years previously, Alexander Parkes had been manufacturing a celluloid based on nitrocellulose with ethanol solvent that he uneffacingly named Parkesine, but which we now call plastic. And in the 1860s Frenchman Achille Serre introduced dry-cleaning to the UK, setting up a chain that lasted a century until it was bought out by Sketchleys.

It’s only as we reach Hackney Wick station that I realise we’ve not seen the Lea itself, though Tyler points out we crossed it while negotiating the A12. The river is more accessible elsewhere along its long slide through London, but it forms only a tiny part of the appeal of the Lea Valley, a glorious scrap of London that will change forever with the Olympics. With it, one fancies, the barrier between London and the East End may become a little less precise, and a lot less interesting.

The Post Office Tower: now you see it…

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Now you don’t…

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This stamp of the Post Office Tower from 1965 is superb, even if it misses out the Post Office Tower itself due to a printing error (thanks to @stampmagazine for the image).

In fact, that seems kind of appropriate as the Post Office Tower was deliberately left off Ordnance Survey maps for decades because it was deemed to be an official secret and therefore of such great military importance nobody was allowed to know where it was even though it had become one of the most recognisable buildings in Britain pretty much as soon as it was opened by Tony Benn (who narrates this brief history of the tower).

It even appeared in an episode of Dr Who in 1966.

And in 1966, its revolving restaurant featured in one of Look At Life‘s fabulous films. Here are two pages from the menu, taken from the excellent Butlins Memories website.

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The Post Office Tower was bombed in 1971 (often attributed to Irish nationalists but more likely the work of the Angry Brigade) and even survived an attack by a giant kitten in the 1970s.

It’s still very popular. Here’s a film by somebody who collects memorabilia about the tower.

Rob Webb has scanned some pages from the original souvenir brochure on his website and James Ward has a nice selection of postcards featuring the Post Office Tower on his blog. I like this one.

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Secret London: inside Wapping’s abandoned Tobacco Dock

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It seemed like a good idea at the time. It was the mid-1980s, the economy was booming and Docklands was on the up. Tobacco Dock, an old Grade I-listed warehouse off East Smithfield in Wapping, seemed ripe for redevelopment. Rupert Murdoch had just moved New International next door from Fleet Street, and other companies were sure to follow. What better place to build the new Covent Garden, a lively hub of shops, bars and restaurants, where City fatcats and Wapping yuppies could mingle and spend?

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Terry Farrell did the architecture and Tobacco Dock opened in 1989, an elegant conversion that featured two arcades of shops on two floors inside a skilfully modernised structure that retained its Victorian industrial integrity. A canal provided a classy terrace for restaurants and bars, while the shops were the best of the era: Saab City, Next, Body Shop, Cobra and Monsoon as well as Justfacts, a shop selling accessories for your Filofax, and Uneasy, a shop that sold designer chairs. Think Broadgate Circus. Think Leadenhall Market. Think Hay’s Galleria. Here was the future. What could possibly go wrong?

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Even before Tobacco Dock opened, the UK economy was in recession and one-by-one, the new shops started to disappear. No new companies followed News International, and with poor transport links and a tanking economy, the yuppie money from Wapping’s riverside apartments could not keep the shops alive. By 1995, Tobacco Dock was already a shell, with just two trading outlets, a restaurant called Henry’s and a sandwich bar, both kept afloat by Murdoch’s minions, of which I was one.

Ten years later, just the sandwich bar remained; now that too is gone. Tobacco Dock is completely empty, a ghost shopping centre forever frozen in 1989, when the world was at its feet. Come here, and you can smell the late-80s ambition and the disappointment and failure when it all started to unwind. It’s like the backdrop to a George Romero zombie film, or a metaphor for rampant commercialism wrapped in the setting of a failed shopping centre.

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Bizarrely, the empty centre remains impeccably maintained and open to the public. I spent happy hours in Henry’s when I worked at The Sunday Times in the 1990s and remember even then how strange it felt to march through the vacant complex, serenaded by mood music piped through the PA. When I returned a couple of years ago in search of nostalgia, there was only silence, broken by the sound of my footsteps echoing round the empty chamber, but the floors were still as clean and the fixtures and fittings as freshly painted as when it first opened.

Rows of disused shops lined the central avenue like glass coffins, some still bearing the names of the shops that once operated here. Frank And Stein’s, the sandwich shop that held out longest like a Japanese soldier still fighting the Second World War twenty years after it ended, kept its sign and counter but the door was shackled by a heavy chain. The eviction notice posted in the window a public sign of private tragedy.

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At the back of Tobacco Dock is a pretty canal, featuring a couple of tall ships that were intended for kids to clamber on while their parents ate at nearby restaurants. One such restaurant, an American diner called Peppermint Park, looked recently abandoned but had been empty for years. The week’s specials were still chalked up on the blackboard, but the interior was barren, holes in the wall indicating that these surfaces were once covered by a mass of Americana memorabilia which now probably line the walls of the nearest branch of TGI Fridays. Here too were three faded posters, celebrating ‘Tobacco Dock – The New Heart Of London’, instantly evoking the lost mood of optimism. One of the posters was illustrated by a map, which in a cartographical display of wishful thinking, placed Tobacco Dock squarely in the centre of a buzzing quarter surrounded by the Design Museum, St Katharines Dock, Petticoat Lane and just off-scene, suggested by a tantalising arrow, the myriad delights of Greenwich. Along the bottom of each poster runs a legend, a promise of what lay within: ‘Unique quality shops – Pirate ships – Restaurants – Bars – Entertainments – History’. Well, it’s certainly history. One out of six ain’t bad.

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Footnote: I wrote this piece in 2010, since which time Tobacco Dock has started to open for occasional private events. 

 

London’s strangest race: meeting the Tube Challenge

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It’s probably London’s strangest race. The Tube Challenge first took place in 1959 and since then hundreds of people have attempted to visit each of London’s 270 tube stations on the same day – it’s very competitive and they even have their own forum. I recently interviewed Andi James, who currently holds the world record with his running partner, Steve Wilson, to ask him how about being a Tube Challenger.

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‘The Tube Challenge is visiting all 270 stations by Tube. If you are on a train, you don’t have to physically step on to the platform just pass through the station, and you can use buses or run between stations if you wish. The first official record was set in 1959. I don’t know anything about the guy who did it first but the master was Bob Robinson who got the record eight times over a period of 21 years.

I heard about it in 2007 and have been doing it ever since. I’ve done it about 46 times now. My winning time [held with Steve Wilson] is 16 hours 29 minutes and 13 seconds and that’s stood since 2011. I do it because I enjoy it. I find it gratifying when you’ve worked it all out on paper and then find it works in reality. I have a route in mind that can knock 40 minutes off my best time, but that would require everything to go perfectly – 20 minutes is certainly possible. Things always go a bit wrong, on my record run there was a 20-minute delay but we got lucky with a few bits here and there. I’m winding down though. I’m getting a little old for it. I’m quite fit and you need to be pretty fit to do some of the runs. I’m 37 and can keep up with 16-year-olds but not for much longer.

If you are going to do it, it needs to be when all the lines are running – that’s Monday to Friday – you need to have a good route and you need there to be no delays. There are some places that are difficult like Kensington Olympia, where there are only nine trains a day, which you have to take into account. You have to be fit as some of the runs are very long so prepare for a lot of pain. Research your door positions because you don’t want to get off at the wrong end and waste five minutes fighting through hundreds of people. I know door positions for every platform in London. There’s also an app for it, created by another Tube Challenger.

The first time I did the challenge, I spent about three weeks calculating all the exchanges and another week physically researching the different runs. The longest is between High Barnet and Cockfosters, 2.4 miles. Some people take the bus, but I know I can run it in 20 minutes. I can definitely improve on my winning route, but so can a lot of other people. There are about 100 people trying each year, and whenever I see people running at Finchley Central to Mill Hill East I know they are either on the Tube Challenge or they are really, really desperate to go to Mill Hill East.’

The last bus to London Bridge

In the previous post, I linked to The Special London Bridge Special from 1972, which features Tom Jones travelling on a No 13 bus to Lake Havasu City, Arizona, where London Bridge had just been sold. Incredibly, that bus is still in Arizona but it isn’t in quite the same condition as the bridge.

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Thanks to Travis Elborough for the picture. Travis – who has just published London Bridge In America: The Tall Story of A Translantic Crossing – also pointed me in the direction of this marvellous song by Cilla Black, lamenting love and the loss of London Bridge.

The Special London Bridge Special

This sensational slice of ham and song was made in 1972 to celebrate the purchase of London Bridge by an American theme park. It features a bizarre cast that includes Tom Jones, Rudolf Nureyev, The Carpenters, Kirk Douglas, Charlton Heston and Terry-Thomas and is basically the film the Olympic opening ceremony could have been.

It’s all here, but watch the intro especially, featuring Tom Jones singing his way round various London landmarks before engaging in a small slice of double entendre on a No 13 bus.

Inside London’s super-prime houses

I wrote this article in 2011 for Gulf Life about London’s super-prime property market.

They call it super-prime. That’s the end of the London property market that starts at £15 million and goes as high as £150 million. It’s a market that operates in isolation from the rest of London and it’s one that is dominated by an international clientele, with buyers jetting in from the booming economies of the Far East, Russia and the Middle East. So what do they get for their bucks?

‘Buyers at this end of the market all have five demands,’ says Giles Hannah, who oversees the European operation of Christie’s Great Estates, the property branch of the venerable auction house, ‘security, space, parking, location and luxury features.’ Christie’s is currently selling a mansion on Cornwall Terrace, a dramatic John Nash-designed sweeping terrace overlooking Regent’s Park. It boasts six bedrooms, a home cinema, gym, steam room, study, state-of-the-art kitchen, mews house for staff, garage with blast-proof doors and majestic views of a royal park. Floors are covered by Italian marble, dark oak or silk carpet, there’s a chill room for furs and the walls are covered with paintings by Picasso and Damien Hirst on loan from the auction house. It’s yours for around £30 million.

‘This property was bought and developed in 2008,’ explains Hannah. ‘There are eight on the terrace and they are being released house by house into the market. London remains a key place to buy and although it’s been a difficult market since 2008, there are enough international buyers around. There are 1,100 billionaires in the world, all capable of purchasing a £30m house in any climate.’

The address they all want is Knightsbridge, which partly explains the prices fetched at One Hyde Park, a development by Christian and Nick Candy. One Hyde Park is a gleaming Richard Rogers-designed tower of luxury that sits almost above Knightsbridge tube, with Hyde Park on one side and Harvey Nichols on the other. A penthouse is said to have sold for more than £100 million and, according to Savills, the selling agent, 60 per cent of the 86 apartments have been snapped up.

A five-bedroom apartment costs upwards of £50m and takes up an entire floor – around 10,000 square feet. The hallway stretches the length of the flat from master bedroom to reception room, one end overlooking the park, the other Knightsbridge. To give an idea of the scale, a baby grand piano in the corner of the living room looks like a coffee table. Off the corridor are a further four bedrooms, two reception rooms, a TV room, study, dining room and two kitchens (one for staff). The building contains a squash court, 22-metre pool, games room, party room and meeting room.

‘You don’t need to leave the development,’ says Ned Baring, Associate Director of Savills. ‘You can live, work and play here. What makes this different to other complexes is that we have 50 dedicated staff at the Mandarin Hotel next door who can provide any service you need, from setting up a dinner party to doing your dry-cleaning. It’s like living in the best hotel in the world, but with your own private residences.’

The Candy brothers have invested a fortune in One Hyde Park – how much, nobody will say– banking on continued high demand for super-prime London property. ‘In the morning you can speak to Asia and in the afternoon you can speak to New York,’ says Baring. ‘There aren’t many cities where you can do that. You might not be here 365 days, but you need to be here.’

Hannah says much the same, ‘Your average Christie’s client will be ultra-high worth and may use this property just a couple of times a year. They’ll also have a place in the south of France, one in New York and a chalet in Courchevel.’

If the ostentation of One Hyde Park doesn’t appeal, a short stroll away – but crucially, still in Knightsbridge – you’ll find the discreet charm of Ovington Square, a classic London garden square located between South Kensington, and Chelsea. ‘This part of Knightsbridge is very popular with Middle Eastern buyers, especially from Qatar, Lebanon, Syria and the UAE,’ says Noel De Keyzer of Savills. ‘They like traditional houses, and will come in the summer to avoid the heat at home.’

The house, refurbished in 2008, was recently rented by a Lebanese family (another renter was Bill Gates), but is now on the market for just under £20 million. The selling point is the vast two-floor pre-war extension taking up the entire back garden, itself the size of a normal house. This holds the reception room and master bedroom. The five-bedroom house also has a sub-basement beneath the lower-ground-floor kitchen, containing a gym and steam room.

‘This end of the market stayed very strong in 2008,’ says De Keyzer. ‘But in 2009, it was dead. People weren’t buying. It picked up again in March 2010, helped by weak sterling.’ The problem now is one of supply. ‘There will be an acute shortage of properties in 2011,’ says De Keyzer. ‘A lot of vendors don’t think they’ll realise their expectation because the super-prime market is still 10 per cent below its peak in 2008. You are dealing with very affluent people who have no need to sell in an uncertain market, and if they’re selling to buy somewhere else, they have nowhere to go.’

There are, according to Hannah, only three developments ready for the super-prime market: Cornwall Terrace, One Hyde Park and The Lancasters. The latter is a fascinating project on the north side of Hyde Park in Bayswater. A regal Victorian terrace has been transformed. The old building behind the gorgeous Grade II-listed facade has been knocked down and replaced by an impressive new complex of 77 apartments, retaining the original front with its huge windows and exceptional views of Hyde Park.

‘These buildings were built in the same style and grandeur as Belgravia,’ says Mark Cherry of Minerva, joint developers with Northacre. ‘It was a high-profile wealthy area and is now going through a revival. Some people will only buy Mayfair and Knightsbridge, but others will want better lifestyle and better buildings, so they will come here. We’re offering a high-level of service for people that expect high service, with three concierges on site at all time. I spoke to somebody who was moving from a mansion block and they said they want to be in a building where the pipes don’t rattle and they don’t have to rely on a single elderly grumpy porter. People want classic British houses with American-style service.’

The surprising thing about all four properties is how similar they are. All are decorated in dark masculine colours. All have Gaggenau kitchens and Crestron systems to control sound, security and lighting. None have gardens. All have flat-screen TVs in the walls of every room. The houses have lifts – ‘Middle Eastern clients don’t like using the stairs,’ says Hannah – while the apartments encourage ‘lateral’ living. There are separate bedrooms and entrances for staff–at The Lancasters and One Hyde Park, some clients also purchase a separate apartment for staff. All have serious security, and all have space. Lots of space. The most breathtaking is One Hyde Park, the best views are from The Lancasters and Cornwall Terrace and the most charming is Ovington Square.

The properties can even be sold fully furnished. ‘The keyword is “turnkey”,’ says De Keyzer. ‘International clients are busy and want to move in straightaway with their suitcases.’ That’s not to say they’ll rush to make the purchase. ‘They’ll look at everything available,’ says Hannah. ‘They like to have choice. This isn’t a financial purchase, it’s a personal one.’

The super-prime market is very lucrative for estate agents. ‘It’s competitive, but in the £10 million-plus range Savills and Knight Frank have more than 50 % of the market between us,’ says De Keyzer. ‘That’s because we are international companies with very good contacts. Our fees are 2.5% for sole agency and 3% joint agency but it’s negotiable. We can afford low fees because our values are higher and we have a large turnover of properties. In London the average house is sold every five years, but on the continent people hold on to property for generations.’

That could be about to change. ‘Over the last few years, the lack of property has become apparent,’ says Hannah. ‘The best properties have been bought by international clients and they won’t be traded for many years. People who purchase a premier address will keep it as an asset for a while.’

Because of this, Hannah anticipates good times lie ahead. ‘London is London, arguably the centre of the world and a major financial hub,’ he says. ‘Clients need to be here, they want to be here, they understand the tax implications and they have good accountants. We’re expecting 30% growth over the next three years.’

Cherry agrees. ‘The market at this level is strengthening. Because people want certain key locations, the market can never be saturated, there are listings, conservation areas, it takes ages to get planning permissions and there are strict limits on tall buildings – it’s a very good market to be in.’ If you can afford it, obviously.

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Secret London: inside a cabmen’s shelter

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This piece was published in Time Out in March 2006.

You must have noticed them: jolly green garden sheds that squad in odd spots of London like displaced emerald Tardises, steam coming out the windows and queues of black cabs lining the streets outside. These are London’s few remaining cabmen’s shelters – 13 in all, for 23,000 drivers – places where cabbies can gather to enjoy tea and sympathy away from the hopeful eyes and raised arms of the stranded, late and lazy who make up their regular custom. The Russell Square shelter is the domain of Maureen, 52, who runs a tight ship, keeping an eye on regulars like Ken (‘Say I’m 21′) and Malcolm (‘I’ve been a cabbie for 37 years. That’s all you need to know’).

‘These places are very interesting to the outsider,’ I say, by way of introduction.

‘They’re even more interesting when you’re on the inside,’ Malcolm replies.

He and Ken come in every day, more or less, to swap tales of fares and roadworks, grumble about Ken Livingstone, talk football, and have something to drink and a bite to eat. They’re keeping alive a long tradition. The Cabman’s Shelter Fund was created by Sir George Armstrong, a newspaper publisher who get fed up waiting for cabs in the rain when drivers had decamped to the nearest pub. He started a fund to supply drivers with a place to get out of the cold and enjoy a cheap meal without straying from the cab stand. The first shelter, erected in 1875, was located on the stand nearest his house (in Oxford). Because the shelters stood on a public highway, the police stipulated they weren’t allowed to be any larger than a horse and cart. At their peak, there were more than 60 in London. Although meant for cabbies, the public could also pop in. Ernest Shackleton was said to frequent the Hyde Park Corner shelter, while the Piccadilly one was nicknamed the ‘Junior Turf Club’ by bright young things, who smuggled in champagne despite the strict teetotal licensing regulations.

Their number declined after WWII as they fell victim to bombs and road-widening schemes, but for a time where a notable feature of London life. HG Wells wrote about ‘the little group of cabmen and loafers that collects around the cabmen’s shelter at Haverstock Hill’, while PG Wodehouse went into greater detail in ‘The Intrusion of Jimmy’ in 1910.

‘Just beyond the gate of Hyde Park… stands a cabmen’s shelter. Conversation and emotion had made Lord Dreever thirsty. He suggested coffee as a suitable conclusion to the night’s revels…. The shelter was nearly full when they opened the door. It was very warm inside. A cabman gets so much fresh air in the exercise of his duties that he is apt to avoid it in private life. The air was heavy with conflicting scents. Fried onions seemed to have the best of the struggle, though plug tobacco competed strongly. A keenly analytical nose might also have detected steak and coffee.’

Food, warmth and companionship are the key. As WJ Gordon wrote in 1893′s The Horse World of London: ‘The cabman is not so much a large drinker as a large eater. At one shelter lately the great feature was boiled rabbit and pickled pork at two o’clock in the morning, and for weeks a small warren of Ostenders was consumed nightly.’

The menu doesn’t stretch to rabbit now, with cabbies preferring tucker that is more in keeping with what a tired cabbie needs, and prices to match. Tea and coffee are 50p. Hot food starts at a quid.

Maureen We do soup, sarnies, fry-ups, curries, jackets… I know what everybody wants. I know everybody who comes in, what he eats and what he don’t eat. Malcolm here had boiled eggs with cucumber in rolls. Except Wednesday. He has baked beans on toast on Wednesday. Ken, he don’t eat nothing. He has a cup of tea.

Time Out You don’t eat here?

Ken No! And I haven’t been in hospital either. Look at the pictures: there’s three up there, four, five, six. All dead. And they used to eat in here.

Malcolm That’s why we’ve got the sign up there: ‘God’s waiting room.’

TO It’s for older cabbies then?

Ken No, anyone can use it. We have one young lad comes in – how old’s Gary, Maur?

Maureen Forty-four. Some of the other shelters are very cliquey – no, I won’t tell you which. If a stranger comes in, they’ll say, ‘You can’t sit there, it’s so-and-so’s seat.’ But we’re not like that.

Malcolm We just check ‘em straight out.

Maureen No, we’re friendly here.

TO There’s lots of Arsenal flags, do you have to be an Arsenal fan?

Ken We get a lot of Arsenal, unfortunately.

Malcolm The Tottenham fans get in and out early.

Ken We let the Arsenal in here ‘cos they’re not allowed in the other shelters.

Maureen This one’s been going since 1901. It used to be in Leicester Square, but moved up here.

Ken That was in 1960-something. When I started cabbing in 1967, it was in Leicester Square. I reckon it moved in around 1969.

Malcolm They’re not all the same size.

Maureen They’re similar, but some are longer or wider. They never used to look like this inside though. They used to have seating all round the sides and a big square heater in the middle. People would bring their own food to cook, but there was no kitchen – it was really for keeping warm. Now it’s more like a caravan, with a kitchen at one end and tables at the other.

TO I read they were originally built to keep cabbies out of pubs.

Ken Well, that didn’t work did it?

TO Can non-cabbies come in here?

Ken Builders come in sometimes and have a cup of tea, but if it gets crowded they have it away and let the drivers in.

Malcolm Cabbies get priority. 

TO Who owns this one?

Maureen I rent it off the Trust Fund. I pay the rent and the bills out of what I make. It’s all right in the summer, but in winter it gets very cold. Once you start letting people in, it’s okay, and in the summer we have all the doors open or sit outside. We get heat from the ovens as well.

Ken That’s why they have us two come in here before the rest, to warm it up.

TO What are your opening hours?

Ken That’s a sore point.

Malcolm When she wakes up.

Maureen These are the only two who come in at this time, so I open for them.

Ken We’re up early – we go out at 4.30 or 5am. The others don’t start till seven or eight, so they don’t want a cup of tea or a sandwich until about 12 but we get hungry before. I eat elsewhere. I ate here once and was laid up for two years.

TO When do you close?

Maureen About half-five. We get some people sitting here all day.

Malcolm We get a lot of people that put their head round the door looking for cabs or information.

Maureen There’s a bloke from Holland who’s fascinated with black cabs. He comes over now and then to talk. We get people all the time. Who’s that bloke off the radio who talks and talks?

Ken Robert Elms

Maureen Yeah, he’s been in here.

Ken And what’s-his-name, Ricky Gervais, he’s always walking past, says hello. Angela Rippon popped here head in the other day.

Maureen And then there’s that bleeding Madonna. She came in to try and get a cab.

TO Do you get any women cabbies?

Maureen Yeah, we’ve got Marion. But they don’t seem to stay – they have one look and go straight out again. We’ve too many nutters. We’ve Mad Bob, Cockhead, the Village Idiot…

Ken We’re all different in here and we’ve all got our stories.

Malcolm We come in to keep track of who is alive and who is dead.

Maureen You’d be surprised how many we can fit inside. It holds ten or 12 sitting but for Christmas dinner we have 30 or 40 standing inside.

Ken We get slung out, me and Malcolm. It’s better anyway  - if anybody’s going to get a turkey with bird flu, it’s Maureen.

Maureen doesn’t rise to the bait. She’s used to it. And, as it has every day for more than 100 years, the hut fills with the smell of fried onions. The cabbies start to file in for lunch, and I have it away to let them grumble, joke and eat in peace.