Monthly Archives: May 2013

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. 

 

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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.

Andi James, Tube Challenge champion

‘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.’

Selling ‘psychedelic marmite’ in Ladbroke Grove with the rock ‘n’ roll doctor

 

Before he met Gram Parsons and became country and western singer Hank Wangford, Sam Hutt was an avowed member of the sixties counterculture as well as a qualified doctor. Like many on the scene, he managed to combine his two lives for a brief period when he and two other doctors ran a practice prescribing marijuana to junkies. Hutt, incidentally, was one of the signatories of Steve Abrams pro-pot advert in The Times.  I spoke to him recently, and he explained how it all came about:

‘I qualified as a doctor and didn’t know what the fuck to do. I didn’t like doctors, I didn’t like medical students, I didn’t like working in hospitals and I didn’t want to do general practice. Then I heard this guy, Ian Dunbar, had a place in Ladbroke Grove. I found this out from Bernie Greenwood, who was the only doctor I really liked and was also a musician, playing saxophone and keyboards.

 

So we both joined in. Ian had this practice on the crest of the hill in Ladbroke Grove. There’s a church and right opposite is the church building and we had the top floor. Ian’s big thing was to help people who were on heroin. He’d discovered that doctors could still prescribe cannabis, ironically in tincture form, which means in alcoholic solution. Ian prescribed it to people who were coming off smack, not because it replaces the heroin – it doesn’t – but as a way of getting high. That’s counter to the usual treatment of heroin, which is to use methadone. The rationalisation for methadone, which can kill you if you overdose on it, is that you don’t get high. It doesn’t make you feel good, whereas heroin makes you feel good.

It seemed to me this was a Presbyterian attitude – if you like something, it must be bad for you. So they switch you on to something you don’t like. Ian went counter to that, offering them something that let them get out of it, just in a different way to heroin. People often switch between heroin and alcohol as alcohol is much closer to heroin than cannabis is. Cannabis doesn’t achieve wipe out, it doesn’t achieve oblivion, which both heroin and alcohol do.

So me, Ian and Bernie set up this hippie practice and as a political act, we prescribed cannabis. In the 60s, smoking a joint was a political act, it was you saying you were a freak, a part of an alternative society, not a straight. And you didn’t touch alcohol because it would kill you. Our ethos was that we wouldn’t prescribe speed: uppers or downers. If that’s what you wanted you had to go to the straight doctors in pin-stripe suits in Harley Street. They’ll give you bucketloads. So I’m not a grocer, but I will prescribe you cannabis. They closed that law down in 1973. We were seeing all sorts of people but when we got our first cheque from the National Health it was for £11. That’s for three doctors after six months work. Even then, £11 wasn’t much. So we had to support ourselves by making it a private prescription charging a couple of quid a time.

We got the cannabis from William Ransom & Son. They were the company in Hertfordshire that had a government license to extract cannabis from the plant. They made it into this sticky thick stuff, like a psychedelic marmite. That would then be dissolved in alcohol to make a tincture. The extract was much stronger than the tincture, you could get very, very stoned.

That practice was eventually closed by the police, because they didn’t like junkies being treated like you and me, they wanted to lock them up. I continued being a rock and roll doctor. I went on tour with Family and I shared a house with Jenny Fabian and Roger Chapman before, through Keith Richards, I met Gram Parsons and discovered country music.’