Category Archives: Architecture

Nostalgia corner: Zola, bitumen, Paolozzi and the great ‘is London shit?’ debate

Because of a frantic start to 2015, I’ve neglected Great Wen recently. Hopefully, I’ll find something to stick up soon but in the meantime here are a few interesting bits and bobs.

First, here’s me, writing for the Canal & River Trust, about the experience of taking a narrowboat into drydock, where you whack it with mallets, coat it in tar and get pleasingly sozzled with strange Irishmen.

Second, I really enjoyed this piece by Callum West on the great Chelsea team of the 1990s, and the extraordinary revival of fortunes that preceded the salad days of Roman Abramovich. This isn’t the side I grew up with, or the one that won the most trophies, but it’s the one that gave me the greatest pleasure to watch.

Finally, the great London debate – is it turning shit or isn’t it? – is gathering pace. The constant stream of negative stories, the latest being Eva Wiseman’s pretty dismal contribution at the weekend, has finally been met by counter-argument in Brockley Central.  Is Nick’s point fatally wounded by the use of Giles Coren as a defense witness? Or is he simply missing the point, which is that the death of fun by over-development in central London is a prevailing trend that is already starting to infect areas far from the West End, and we sit and sneer at those uncomfortable at the increasing inequality, inaccessibility, unaffordability and general dreary Dubainess of it all at our peril? Both, probably.

Professional contrarians like Coren will get in bed with anyone if it gets them attention, but I’m not sure many other Londoners should be siding with the developers and speculators.

By illustration, the latest landmark to get the chop are the great Paolozzi murals at Tottenham Court Road. Still, that’s the price of progress! Yay to cultural vandalism!

Ghost street


I walk past this corner at least twice every day but only recently noticed the ghost sign painted above the newer enamel one. I assume it was previously covered up, otherwise I’m sure I’d have spotted it at some point in the past five years. Perhaps the jutting pipe points to recent usage.

Much as I like a painted street sign, this one is particularly interesting as it dates back to a time when the street – a short stub of road – had a different name entirely. According to Steve Chambers, who knows about such things, this was one of three name changes in the area – including the eradication of the similar Hamilton Terrace on Shakespeare Road – brought about to tidy up postal addresses.

The ghost sign for the ghost street sits opposite a ghost pub. Hamilton Supermarket occupies the site of the Hamilton Arms, a cosy corner pub opened in 1878 that was captured magnificently in these old photos. It closed in 2004.


hamilton supermarket

Earls Court and the death of fun in London

“In London, it seems everything that’s not a shop, offices or luxury apartments is being demolished,” sighed artist Duggie Fields when I interviewed him last month for a piece in Uncut about the imminent demolition of Earls Court Exhibition Centre. It’s a quote that, in a nutshell, seems to encapsulate all that is going wrong with London right now.

“There is so much damaged being done to London all over, Earl’s Court is just part of it,” says Fields. “London is losing a scale of living that has been very special for a long time. Now we have this mini high rises that could be from anywhere, they are characterless and there are so many of them.”

Earls Court will be pulled down early next year and replaced by houses, ending the area’s 120-year history as a place of fun. This history is well known to London nerds, but is worth repeating. The former cabbage field of Earls Court was transformed into a funzone by Yorkhire entrepreneur John Whitely at the end of the 1880s, when he brought Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show to the newly transformed exhibition site, hemmed in between railway lines. It featured a miniature Rocky Mountains, Native American village, corrals and a cowboy bunkhouse. “The show was a revelation,” write Felix Barker and Peter Jackson in Pleasures Of London. A few years later, the site attracted London’s first big wheel – a 300ft monster called the Gigantic Wheel.

When that lost its thrill, new entertainments were sought – including plans for a mechanical racecourse. Numerous exhibitions were also held there – including Captain Boynton’s Water Show in 1893, the Greater Britain Exhibition, in 1899 and Shakespeare’s England in 1912. Then in 1937 the Exhibition Centre was built. It opened with a Chocolate and Confectionery Exhibition and went on hold swimming galas, motor shows, the Royal Tournament and events for the 1948 and 2012 Olympics.  It’s a decent looking building, too, well worth saving for its lovely Art Deco curve and revolutionary concrete engineering. So many magnificent buildings from this era are being lost.

Less, pleasantly, in 1939 it hosted a gargantuan meeting of Oswald Mosley’s fascist blackshirts.

From the 1970s, Earls Court also began to host pop shows. David Bowie was first to play there, although Noddy Holder of Slade claims they were the first to book it and then managed to improve the sound after Bowie flopped. Concerts by Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, Queen, Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd followed. I saw Oasis there, unfortunately, and also the BRIT awards in 2000, when I threw a champagne cork at Christine Hamilton.

Slade fans at Earls Court

And now it’s to come down, replaced by 8,000 houses and some shops.

Duggie Fields has lived in Earls Court since the 1960s. You may recognise his flat – and former flatmate.

He points out that the removal of the Exhibition Centre will, at a stroke, remove any point or purpose to the Earls Court area. “It has nothing for people to come to,” he says. “Just boring anonymous shops and lots of traffic. All we’ll get is more chainstores because there’s no neighbourhood, there’s no locals. You can’t create villages, they grow over a long period of time.” He also fears for the pubs and restaurants that rely on the Exhibition Centre, which has still been functioning almost round the clock despite impending doom, for their custom.

He’s right. Earls Court is, even with the Exhibition Centre, one of the most boring areas of London. Without it, it’s pretty much irrelevant. But there’s a problem here too. London needs housing, desperately. Surely these 8,000 or so units will help?

It seems unlikely. The new apartments will – like those in the big new developments and Nine Elms – be aimed at the pockets of investors and speculators, people with deep pockets who have taken advantage of stagnant interest rates to buy up property and then charge eye-watering rents for them. It’s hard to blame them, as economic policy seems designed purely to over inflate London’s property market, but the damage is considerable. Because not only are they building identikit apartments in areas nobody that actually needs housing can afford, they are in the process annihilating anything that could be seen as fun – pubmusic venues, sports grounds as well as historic structures like Earls Court. It’s a depressing, dismal outcome that offers the worst of all possible worlds.

It’s also entirely typical of the current state of London: could you possibly imagine a scheme as imaginative and as exciting and beneficial for the public as the conversion of Tate Modern happening today? Not a chance. It would be flattened and replaced by luxury glass apartments. What do we get instead? A bloody Garden Bridge, stupid cable car and shopping centres. Thank god at least the Olympic site has been safeguarded – for now.

“There’s nothing to build on the heritage they’re throwing away,” says Fields of Earls Court. “It’s been an exhibition site for over 100 years. London is tossing that out with as many other things as it can toss out under this current administration.”

London filth

Lee Jackson loves filth. His new book, Dirty Old London, is full of the stuff, as he explores Victorian London’s attempts to cleanse a city that is swilling in muck. I’ve often wondered what Victorian London would have smelled like, and Jackson’s book comes close to capturing what must have been a frightful stink. I knew about the horse shit and the smoke, but had never considered the mud, blood, unwashed bodies, corpses and human excrement that, collectively, would have made the Victorian city one of the foulest places on earth. It’s astonishing anybody wanted to live there.

Jackson shows how Victorians began to push against the tide of muck, which grew worse as London’s population swelled. Victorians did not consider dirt in itself to be a carrier of disease, but they believed the smell could be lethal as well as deeply unpleasant, so eventually set about doing something about it. They built pavements, sewers, public baths and indoor lavatories, improved housing, dug cemeteries and generally tried to do something about “that combined odour of stale fruit and vegetables, rotten eggs, foul tobacco, spilt beer, rank cart-grease, dried soot, smoke, triturated road-dust and damp straw’. They weren’t always successful – some of those aromatic problems lingered long into the 20th century when they were eventually dealt with, or in the case of horse manure, replaced by something even worse such as exhaust fumes.

In explaining how this happened, Jackson is far more entertaining than anybody has the right to be on such a subject. Rather than focus on the well-trod tales of John Snow and Joseph Bazalgette – both of whom barely feature, thankfully – Jackson resuscitates the lives of less well known figures in this lengthy campaign against dirt, characters like reformer Edwin Chadwick who laid much of the groundwork for what was to follow. In the process, he shows how Victorian London functioned – the haphazard, individual-driven nature that saw things get done, or not, as the case might be.

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Indecency by Isaac Cruikshank

This is a history with potentially narrow focus, but Jackson – a general historian of the unstuffy, non-academic variety – is removed enough from the subject to be able to show its wider importance and long-term effects. One theme of the book is the way sanitisation – in the form of sewage, rubbish and housing – was the hinge on which London’s social contract turned. For much of the 19th-century, the bewildering array of local authorities that ran London saw their role as, essentially, to keep out the way. They did as little as necessary, thus keeping rates low and relying on private enterprise to fill the gap. But as London grew, getting bigger and smellier every year, this system began to creak. A good example is with the dustmen. Collecting and recycling London’s rubbish was a lucrative job for some entrepreneurs, but not so much for the dustmen themselves, who had to rely on tips to make a living. And given that tips were much more likely to be acquired in rich areas, the poorer streets were increasingly neglected, allowing rubbish to pile higher and higher. Local authorities had to step in to fix this, and it gradually became the accepted role of local authorities in the UK until Thatcherite councils like Wandsworth in the 1980s began to perceive different, pre-Victorian, way of running things.

Jackson also touches on a related angle: the increasing movement of public buildings into private hands. In this case, it’s centred round the Victorian public lavatories, which were only built after ferocious lobbying from some notable figures who recognised the desperate need on the streets for London loos.  The story of how those toilets were eventually built is fascinating in itself, but Jackson also notes the fact that so many have recently been closed, flogged, refurbished and then sold back to us as coffee shops, galleries and an “award winning urban spa”. Perhaps this is the fault of the Victorians, for making things so well and so adaptable, but you can’t help feeling that, now as then, it stinks.

Survivors in Wapping, 1976

Survivors was a TV series made by the BBC in the mid-1970s that explored Britain’s post-apocalyptic near future. With most of the world’s population killed by plague, the survivors were ‘reduced to trudging across the countryside in their parkas’ (Dominic Sandbrook in Seasons In The Sun) in search of food and shelter. The creator, Terry Nation, went on to make Blake’s 7. The series featured numerous guest stars – Brian Blessed, Patrick Troughton – as well as faces that would become better known in the 1980s like Dot from Eastenders, Peter Duncan from Blue Peter and Trigger from Only Fool’s And Horses.

It’s Trigger, aka Roger Lloyd-Pack, who you may recognise in the pictures below. They come from an episode shot on  a bleak wasteland in Wapping in 1976.

In the absence of an actual post-apocalyptic landscape on which to film, the decimated docks of Wapping made a handy substitute. The main location is the site of the current Hermitage Riverside Memorial Gardens – then a bombsite but now the location for London’s only memorial to the civilian dead of the Blitz – but there are several interesting looking buildings in the background. Reader Steve, who sent me the pictures, wants to know if any of these buildings remain. (Other than Tower Bridge, obviously.)

If you know, please tell us in the comments below.








Sportscapes of London


The Oasis swimming pool in Covent Garden in 1946

I’ve spent the past week immersed in Played In London, a book that is about as ambitious as any you are likely to see published about London this year. Written by Simon Inglis (author of the seminal book on British football grounds) for English Heritage, it attempts to tell the story of every sport that has ever been played in any venue in the capital – that’s everything from lost Tudor skittle alleys to skateboard parks, including all the major football and cricket grounds as well as lost lidos and billiards halls, archery grounds and greyhound tracks, relocated diving boards and blue plaques. There’s even space to mention rugby netball, a sport created in 1907 by soldiers on Clapham Common and which is still played there every Tuesday and nowhere else.

It’s a breathtaking accomplishment, full of terrific nuggets of information – did you know there were Eton Fives courts under the Westway, or that the BBC’s Maida Vale studio was built in an old rollerskating rink? – but also attempting to tell the story of how a city and its people indulge in play, how that play is shaped by the culture and topography of the city, and how it develops over time, often wittingly reinventing itself as a ‘heritage’ sport rather than die out.

This is social history as much as anything, but goes much deeper than any other book I’ve seen on the subject, like the marvellous Pleasures Of London. One fascinating section looks at the history of company sports grounds. There were once dozens of these in south-east and south-west London – Catford had several – where civil servants or bankers could take part in regular games of rugby or football, or enjoy the annual sports day. Knowing more about these events, Inglis says, would let us learn so much about the culture of work, belonging and inter-office bonding in 19th and 20th century London.


Bushel basket race for Borough Market sports day at Herne Hill, 1931

Given the scale of the project, the navigation of the book can be a little complex, but the layout makes sense over time. Inglis begins with an overview of the history of sport in London and of London parks and open spaces, before examining several areas in greater detail to see what they tell us about sport and London, and how certain spaces have been used repeatedly over time. He uses the phrase sportscapes and essentially is intending to show that sport, play and leisure require greater understanding of history than simply observing the architecture and listing club records (although the architectural chapters on Pavilions and Grandstands are genuine delights). It requires a knowledge of how space was utilised and developed, and what accidents of personality, business, culture and geography in the wider world outside sport allowed some sports and grounds to thrive while others died. It also shows how some spaces are defined by sport, but also how sports, clubs and associations are defined by the space they occupy.

The river is an obvious candidate for this treatment (and I never knew there were so many boathouses), but he also looks at length at such intriguing places as Wembley Park, Crystal Palace Park, Lea Valley, Dulwich and the Westway – all of which have long, complex relationships with myriad sports – to uncover stories that may otherwise only be known to local historians, or single-sport specialists. This approach repeats itself throughout the book, allowing ‘found spaces’ such as the South Bank skatepark to be included alongside manicured golf greens and expensive new all-seater stadia.


Office workers play netball in Lincoln’s Inn Field, 1950s.

Oh, and if this isn’t enough the whole thing is illustrated lavishly throughout – indeed, they may have tried to cram in one or two photographs too many – with some spectacular mapping also included.

It makes a fine accompaniment to another book I read recently, on a more modest scale but still of some importance to London’s sporting heritage. Fighting Men Of London by Alex Daley is essentially an oral history – although the author occasionally makes his presence felt – of London’s boxing history between the 1930s and 1960s, told through seven former fighters. It puts some flesh on the bones of Inglis’s research: the boxers describe the lost boxing rings of London such as the shambolic Mile End Arena or the refined Stadium Club in Holborn, where inter-war gentlemen would dine ringside, ignoring the blood that splashed into their supper. They also talk about the old Central London gyms like Bill Klein’s in a basement in Fitzroy Street or Jack Solomon’s near the Windmill Theatre with an eye for detail that makes you think of Gerald Kersh.

The appetite for boxing in this age was vast, and many of the fighters interviewed built up large followings as they fought as frequently as once a month. None of them really made it into the big money though, and it’s notable that upon retiring several became involved in crime – The Krays, former boxers themselves, have walk-on roles in several of the stories. As a history of East End culture, it’s illuminating.

London: a cycling city

I wrote about the challenges facing cycling in London for The London Magazine

Every time I hear that another cyclist has been killed on one of London’s many lethal junctions, I pray to a god I don’t believe in that it isn’t one of my friends. The idea of cycling in London terrifies me. That’s partly because I haven’t ridden a bike more than twice in 20 years, and partly because I have seen so many incidents, altercations and near fatal collisions involving cyclists during my walks around the city.


I’m aware of the figures – the fact that cycling is overall a pretty safe form of transport, even if it could always be better – but it’s hard to shake off that impression that it’s anything but. I’ve seen cyclists get hit by taxi doors and narrowly avoid getting squashed by buses. I’ve seen them shouting with rage and fear at drivers who’ve turned out of a side street in front of them without looking. I’ve seen them cycle headlong into pedestrians who weren’t looking where they were going (and vice versa). I’ve seen them getting into squabbles with bus drivers about ownership of bus/cycle lines that end with blows being traded. I’ve seen them picking themselves and their bent bikes off the pavement after minor crashes. And I’ve seen the blood getting washed off the road after major ones. It looks anything but fun.

So despite the fact I see people cycling quite easily and happily on London streets every day, I still think it’s one of the last things I’d ever want to put myself or my family through on a daily basis.

That is something that needs to change if London is ever going to be a cycling city, which it desperately needs to if it is to remain in any way a human and pleasant place to live in. People like me need to be persuaded that London cycling is safe and that a trip on the bike to the shops won’t result in a serious injury or a shouting match. As Mike Cavenett of the London Cycling Campaign admitted to me “the striking thing is that Dutch cyclists just look like Dutch people”, by which he means you see the elderly and children, men and women, all cycling in their normal clothes – not like London, where cyclists wear tight, bright clothing and manage to look simultaneously over and under dressed.

When London’s cyclists start to look normal, that’s when we know we are heading the right way. And for that to happen, London needs better infrastructure, streets on which cyclists feel safe and are able to relax, making the whole experience better for everybody. Everybody I spoke to – including Andrew Gilligan, the Mayor’s cycling tsar – seemed united on this and agreed on the direction that London needed to go in. Whether it actually happens, whether there is the political will to spend the cash to keep the promises, remains to be seen. But here’s hoping it starts to happen, because a cycling city would be better London for everybody.

Under London: Crossrail is coming

Like every other journalist in London, I wrote an article about the Crossrail project. It appeared in Eurostar’s Metropolitan magazine in May and is reprinted here.

In a cavern 35 metres underneath Stepney City Farm, London is getting smaller. Not literally of course, that would be terrifying. No, this gigantic space under east London has been excavated for Crossrail, the 42-km high-speed tunnel being built beneath London. When it opens in 2018, Crossrail will carry 200 million passengers every year from east to west (or west to east), cutting the city down to a more manageable size as journey times are greatly reduced. When Mayor Boris Johnson entered a similar Crossrail site in Canary Wharf he gushed it was “like a Neanderthal stumbling into the gloom of Lascaux… akin to a gigantic subterranean cathedral several times the size of Chartres.” In truth, the Stepney cavern is more like a big, bare quarry, shaft open to the sky, lined with concrete and exuding a faint smell of wet earth.

Chartres cathedral

Crossrail hole in the ground

“If Crossrail is a Y, we are standing where it splits,” explains Will Jobling, Crossrail construction manager, pointing at a map that shows Crossrail travelling across London to Stepney, where it divides with one leg heading north-east and the other crossing the Thames to Abbey Wood in the south-east. “Two of the tunnel boring machines (TBM), Victoria and Elizabeth, have passed through here and you can just see the back of one on its way to Farringdon. They should get there by February 2015.”

There are eight TBMs working on Crossrail, giant moles that slowly grind through London clay at the rate of around 150 metres a week. Weighing 1000 tonnes and with rotating, earth-scraping heads, these monsters run 24-hours a day and are like mobile factories, removing dirt and sealing the tunnel with concrete as they move. They even have canteens and toilets as well as a rescue chamber in which workers can take refuge in case of an accident. Around 4.5 million tonnes of earth (which Jobling says has the consistency of “elephant dung”) will be transported by barge to the Thames estuary to create a man-made nature reserve. One machine, Jessica (named after Olympic athlete Jessica Ennis), is being removed at Stepney. It’s taken apart underground, lifted out the shaft then transported to Canning Town, where it will be welded back together and lowered into the ground to continue tunnelling. Parts of Jessica lie strewn across the Stepney site, battleworn, clay-scarred and weary but with more work still to do. They look like ancient artefacts salvaged from the seabed.

The TBMs cost £10million apiece and are fitted with lasers that help engineers plot a course around and under London’s subterranean obstacles – sewers, foundations, plague pits, buried rivers and other tube lines. “At Tottenham Court Road, we come within 80cm of the Northern Line,” says Jobling. “We look at every obstruction we could possibly find. Sometimes we have to back-engineer, look at how high a building is and then work out how deep the piles will go.”

Despite this, the basic principles haven’t changed since Marc Isambard Brunel invented the tunnel shield to dig the Thames Tunnel from Rotherhithe to Wapping between 1825 and 1843. Some methods go back even further. “At Canary Wharf we hit a bunch of old piles that we had to cut through by hand using old mining techniques,” says Jobling. “The older guys loved it.” He’s interrupted as a loco, a miniature train used by workers to travel through completed tunnels, scoots noisily past. It’s like an old mining cart, only it runs on diesel and is deafening. As the TBMs approach Farringdon, workers will have an 8km underground commute on the loco to work every morning. When the screeches have stopped echoing off the cavern walls, Jobling explains how a ceremony was held at the start of operations as priests blessed 38 statues of St Barbara, the patron saint of miners, and placed them at tunnel mouths. “Tunnellers can be a superstitious lot,” he notes.

Saint Barbara

Crossrail will be followed by similar huge projects – the Northern Line extension to Battersea, a gigantic sewer called the Thames Tideway, and possibly a north-south Crossrail Two – and to ensure London retains its tunnelling knowhow, Crossrail opened the Tunnelling And Underground Construction Academy (TUCA) in Ilford in 2011. In a building designed to look like a TBM entering the ground, workers are trained in a specially developed environment that includes a replica of Crossrail tunnel. “We get them used to working in an enclosed space,” says Georgina Bigam, Skills And Training Manager. “Everything can be installed and dismantled. We also do a safety course where they fill the tunnel with smoke, turn off the lights and simulate explosions by chucking firecrackers around for half-an-hour. They have to find their way out.” She pauses. “I usually make the journalists do it,” she says, and giggles.

TUCA trains hundreds of people to work beneath London’s soil. The canteen – complete with mural of UK tunnelling landmarks – is filled with eating, gossiping men (and one woman) of all ethnicities, from Cockney grease monkeys to a middle-aged Sikh with hard hat screwed on top of his turban. Many gain knowledge that is valued all over the world. As Valerie Todd, TUCA’s Talent and Resources Director, explains. “There’s tunnelling happening right across the world as cities everywhere are facing similar pressures, looking to find ways to move a lot of people around very quickly when the surface area is used up.” But Crossrail is the current focus, a £15-billion project that is Europe’s largest infrastructure project and which Boris Johnson has likened to conquering Everest. Onward push the TBMs, while the city sleeps and workmen come and go. Saint Barbara would be proud

London timewarp: James Smith & Sons umbrella shop, Holborn


This article appears in the current issue of Completely London magazine

When you first stumble upon James Smith & Sons, it’s tempting to believe you have slipped through a timewarp in the Holborn pavement and landed in Victorian London or, more prosaically, chanced upon a perfectly realised film set. The plate windows of the New Oxford Street shop are crowded with umbrellas and walking sticks, while the polished frontage of carved mahogany, brass, enamel and engraved glass boasts, in richly painted font, that James Smith & Sons was “Established 1830”. It’s easy to believe it hasn’t changed a jot since then.

The interior is every bit as spectacular as the outside, and English Heritage have listed the whole thing at Grade II*, noting that it is a ‘typical high-class late Victorian or Edwardian shop and as such is a rare survival in London’. The shop has been occupied by James Smith & Sons since 1867 and while there have been some updates – a new till, electric lighting – much of the façade and interior date to then. “There have been some changes but not many,” says Robert Harvey, the owner. “A few years ago we spent a considerable amount refurbishing the shop and on the day we opened a customer came in, looked around and said, “I thought you were having it redecorated?’.”


Fittingly for such a classic-looking shop, James Smith & Sons, which is still owned by descendants of the original James Smith, specialise in the very British trade of umbrellas and walking sticks – as one writer has noted, “the art of applying the shade to the ribs with just the right amount of tension is no small matter”. The umbrella is still seen as a key piece of kit for a well-equipped Londoner looking for protection from the elements in this most rainy of cities, and an umbrella from James Smith & Sons is as desirable as a pair of shoes from John Lobb or suit from Savile Row. The shop is also popular with foreign visitors, who purchase English umbrellas as well as walking sticks and seat sticks (collapsible seats, originally for shooting but now more likely to be found at Glyndebourne). They also once sold items like swordsticks and swagger sticks as well as ceremonial sun shades for African chiefs; according to legend, one American customer asked the company for walking sticks made from every English wood possible and received more than 70. The range of umbrellas stretches into the thousands and about 30% of the stock is unique, existing as just a single item, with its own combination of material, colour, wood and style of handle.

The shop’s appearance is, admits Harvey, an anomaly as well as something of an accident. “Looking through the records, the business survived by a miracle,” he says. “The Smiths never had enough money to refurbish and I’m not sure they were the sort of people who looked long-term – they were never sure how long the business would last.” The appearance eventually became a trademark, and the shop has made regular appearances in London guidebook, even appearing in novels, in one instance when the villain of a thriller purchases a murderous swordstick from a strange old shop “marooned on an island surrounded by traffic”.

But while the appearance is identical to the Victorian shop, the attitude is different. “Unlike the Smiths in the 19th century we see the business as having a future providing a great product,” says Harvey. “But we also try very hard to retain that original character, not as a museum piece but as an example of 19th-century commercialism in the 21st-century.”

Richard Fortey’s secret tour of the Natural History Museum

Some years ago, the writer and scientist Richard Fortey took me on a tour of his favourite items in the Natural History Museum. His book, Dry Store Room No 1, is one of the best books I’ve read about London museums.

1 ‘This is the collection of all known species of humming birds which I used as the cover for my book. It goes back nearly 200 years to the earliest days of natural history as spectacle. One of the amazing things is that the colours, the iridescent feathers, have survived so long. You can even see the tiny eggs, with the appropriate egg in it. This whole bird gallery is a survivor to the old days of the museum, preserved almost apologetically as an example of the classic gallery, but a lot of people still stop and look at it even though it’s just stuffed birds.’

Pregnant ichthyosaur fossil showing three skeletons of young inside her bodys 2. ‘This one of the great sea dragons, an ichthyosaur, a marine reptile. This one is particularly beautiful and informative because within the body cavity you can see here outlined in red, the remains of other smaller individuals. The question originally was ‘were they cannibals or did they give birth to live young’ and the answer is almost certainly the latter. These animals are very like porpoises and almost certainly lived the same way, gregariously and pursuing a very fast life that gave them no time to sit on eggs. But this is very easy to miss.’

45 NHMX 4597.jpg

3 ‘The building itself. You can choose anything from the various animals and birds that adorn the interior. Even the pillars are based on the bark of trees. On the whole, the building moves from living to fossil as you go from one end to another and that is true also of the animals portrayed. In the mineral gallery, right at the end above a door on the left is a dodo. I also think that one of the monkeys has been made to look a little like Darwin.’

4. ‘The mineral gallery has probably changed the least since my early days and it’s also the least visited. It’s a classic systematic approach where all the minerals are laid out in cases arranged by chemical composition, so you could come here and learn some serious mineralogy if you started at one end and worked your way through. At the end, in the Vault, where particularly precious minerals are displayed, is something  called bournonite with black wheels shaped like cogwheels. This came from a Cornish mine that has since closed so this is really the only good specimen that will ever be found with this particular chemical composition. It’s now extremely valuable because the rarer something gets, the more valuable it becomes.’

5. ‘The blue whale, it might be obvious but it is remarkable. For a while, during the war, some people working here kept an illicit still in the belly of the whale. So even with the best-known exhibit, there are secrets to be had.’

The Natural History Museum's table tops

6. ‘Finally, head for the geology section in the mezzanine level. This used to be an old-fashioned museum in its own right but now it has been changed and in making space they only put back about ten per cent of the specimens. Each one is individually highlighted so it doesn’t give you the systematic overview or leave room for the quirkier items. But this table is still here. It’s a collection of North European ornamental stones all made into one table. You can even make out fossilised nautiloids of around 450 millions year in some of them, and also fossilised coral. There’s no label for it, nothing to say what it is and where it came from. You and I are probably the first people to have stopped and look at this for several weeks.’