Category Archives: Boats

Secret London: eight London shrines

I wrote this for the wonderful Curiocity, London’s finest pocket-sized trivia-and-map-packing magazine. Issue E, with a pilgrimage theme, is available at all good London bookshops. 

Tyburn martyrs
On Bayswater Road at Marble Arch is a small convent, unlikely home to a ‘cloistered community of benedictine contemplatives’, aka nuns. In the basement chapel, the walls are covered with ancient relics – skin, bone, bits of fingernails – from some of the 350 Catholic martyrs who were hanged on the three-sided Tyburn Tree during the Tudor wars of religion. Behind the altar of this ghoulish Martyr’s Shrine is a replica of the Tyburn gallows itself.

Giro, The Nazi Dog
One of London’s best known ‘secret’ sites, this little stone on Carlton House Terrace marks the grave of Giro, beloved pooch of (Hitler-opposing) German ambassador Leopold von Hoesch. Giro died while the German Embassy was at No 8-9 (now the Royal Society) during the pre-war Nazi era. He wasn’t really a Nazi, incidentally, as dogs rarely express a political preference (although I did once know one that would bark like a maniac if you said ‘Labour party’).

Bolan’s Tree
A sycamore tree on Queen’s Drive in Barnes has been a shrine to Marc Bolan since 1977 when Bolan’s Mini crashed into it, killing the singer instantly. A bronze bust of Bolan stands nearby.

Spoons

Holborn’s junkie spoons
Underneath a dank stairwell in Farringdon close to Mount Pleasant sorting office you might stumble across a wall stuck with a dozen mysterious spoons. Urban legend says these were placed here by heroin users in tribute to their dead peers, each spoon marking a new death.

Cross Bones graveyard
This parcel of disused land in Borough has been claimed by locals as a shrine to prostitutes said to have been buried on unconsecrated land since the 1500s, and they come here to lay flowers for the forgotten dead. In truth, Borough had many such graveyards and Cross Bones was used to bury the poor of both sexes.

Regent’s Canal coconuts
The further west you head along Regent’s Canal towards Southall the more likely it is you will come across a coconut floating in the water, sometimes cut in half and containing candles. These are placed there by London Hindus in religious ceremonies that sees the tiny canal replace the mighty Ganges.

Skateboard graveyard
Look over the side of the Jubilee Footbridge and you’ll see dozens of broken skateboards lying on one of the concrete feet that anchor the bridge to the Thames. These are boards that have experienced one olley too many and, beyond repair, been dropped to join their kin by South Bank skateboarders.

Postman’s Park
A shrine to everyday heroes, this park features a number of ceramic tiles dedicated to Londoners who died while saving the lives of others. A remarkable, very touching little spot created by the Victorian artist GF Watts.

Pubs

I’ve only ever really had one local, that is a pub I visited at least once a week for a couple of years. But what a local. Crocker’s Folly was one of London’s best pubs, a beautiful old gin palace, with a stunning saloon bar that featured 50 kinds of marble, Romanesque marble columns, Jacobean ceiling, cut glass, chandeliers and carved mahogany.

The pub even had a great back story. It was built by Frank Crocker in 1889, who got wind that a new station was to open at Marylebone and so placed his extravagant new hotel at what he believed was going to be the perfect location to attract the thousands of travellers. Sadly, the station was constructed half-a-mile  to the south and – it’s said – a ruined Crocker leapt to his pavementy death from one of the upstairs window. (In truth, he died in 1904 of natural causes.)

I used Crocker’s when I lived on the nearby canal at Lisson Grove, popping there for a pint after work, for a quick lunch or long dinner, to watch the football, for a sneaky drink between visits to the launderette, to take part in the pub quiz, to meet friends, to be alone. We had a great landlord and the pub was always full of canal folk and locals, a place you felt welcome, where there was always somebody to talk to or enough room for you to settle down on your own, with a packet of cigarettes, a newspaper and a couple of quid for the fruit machine.

Then, pretty abruptly, things changed. A new landlord was brought in by the owners and you couldn’t tell exactly what he was doing wrong, but it was clearly something. Dodgy kids from nearby estates become more prominent. The quality of ale declined. Less events were held. The food menu got worse. Suddenly, Crocker’s became a little rough – it was no longer the sort of place you’d expect to encounter the annual Christmas party held by national newspaper crossword compilers, as had once been the case in the late 1990s – and so we’d walk past it on our way to other, now better, pubs around Warwick Avenue. That’s the problem with pubs. If they aren’t good enough, there’s always a better one around the corner. Until that one closes as well.

I noticed on one of my last visits to Crocker’s that the door policy had changed to an almost unheard of ‘Over-25s only’. In 2002, shortly before I left the canal behind, it closed.

It’s still closed.

Lord know what Crocker’s looks like inside, even though it is a listed building and being carefully watched by CAMRA members. Last time I passed it was as boarded up as ever, but there is planning permission for flats to be installed in the many upstairs rooms. Work has begun, I’ve heard, but CAMRA do not think a pub is part of that plan. What this means for that astounding ground floor, I do not know.

Crocker’s Folly was a beautiful building, open to all Londoners, serving many needs and creating a community around it, and it’s demise is as great a tragedy as that imagined for its creator, more so because it always felt deliberate, as if the company that owned the pub were opting for managed decline, an excuse to close the pub and find a way to sidestep planning permission so they could sell it to developers. That never happened and so the pub was left to rot, like so many others in London.

If you can stand it, scroll through this amazing Flickr archive of London’s lost pubs. I knew some of these, once.

I’ve written about the threats to London pubs and what can be done to save them in this month’s Metropolitan magazine for Eurostar. 

At the Poll Tax Riot

I attended the Poll Tax Riot by accident. I was at the theatre with my family on Charing Cross Road when the lights came up at the end of the performance and the house manager told us there had been a little disturbance outside so we would have to remain in our seats for a short period. As we did so, this was taking place on the street above.

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We’d seen the coaches parked up as we drove into London, but I had little interest in politics. I knew who the Prime Minister and  leader of the opposition were, but that’s about as far as it went. I would have recognised other names – I watched and enjoyed Spitting Image – but none of it really meant very much to me. Perhaps that’s as it should be when you are 14. Questions of policy were largely irrelevant so the anger towards the Poll Tax Riot had passed me – and my Daily Mail-reading parents – almost completely by. And, boy, were people angry.

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When the house manager gave us the all clear, we climbed the stairs – the theatre  was in a little basement – and emerged on to a devastated Charing Cross Road. What I most remember is the stench from all the overturned bins, debris spilling on to the streets, and the complete absence of traffic, people and noise. It was spooky. That smell I can still recall, a horrible, fatty, sweet stink of rot and decay. London then was a dirty city, but this was something else.

My father – surely in a state of some fear – ushered us through back streets towards the car park in Soho but I remember little of this journey, which surely would have taken us past smashed shops, mobs of protesters and riot police desperately trying to get their shit together. Once we reached the car, my father visibly relaxed but one junction, he had to hit the accelerator while we waited at a red light. He later said he’d seen we were about to be sandwiched between a bunch of rioters and some police and decided this was not a time to obey the laws of the road. Once again, I’d missed this sight.

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I thought about all this again while reading a pamphlet I picked up recently for £2 in a local bookshop. Produced by ACAB Press (an acronym for All Coppers Are Bastards) and ‘dedicated to all working-class heroes’, Poll Tax Riot: 10 Hours That Shook Trafalgar Square contains 12 eyewitness accounts of the riot. The interviewees all appear to be anarchists, and are as equally contemptuous of the traditional Left – Militant are particularly despised, and there are amusingly barbed references to George Galloway and Tommy Sheridan – as they are the police. Most of them seem to have had a great old time, chucking stuff at coppers, smashing windows and setting fire to South Africa House. This is about revenge.

‘Off we go intent upon destruction, up Charing Cross Road, into the West End, everything a target, everything subject to our rage and deep down surely a demonstration of how hated this world is.’

Cars are turned on their roofs, shops looted, the Hippodrome smashed and the police attacked whenever they are seen. There are no dissenting voices to the general feeling the Met finally got what they had deserved for a decade. One protester who ended up in a cell even claims that his fellow cellmate was a prison officer who joined in the fun because he ‘fucking hates the cops’.

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The pamphlet is so gleefully celebratory of the riot that it has to distance itself from the Trafalgar Square Defendants’ Campaign, set up to help those that had been arrested, even as it promises it will give them all proceeds from its sale. It also announces that ‘this pamphlet is anti-copyright and can be freely reproduced by any revolutionary group. But copyright protects it from being used by journalists, rich bastards, etc.’ I hope they don’t sue.

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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. 

 

Five videos of Paul McCartney’s London

Inspired by this marvellous piece of Paul McCartney-related London trivia from Mark Mason, I thought we should look at five classic Macca In London videos on You Tube.

1 Press, 1986
Here’s Macca on the tube in this little known video from 1986. Check out the modestly greying locks, and drink in the 80s atmosphere and the now lost station architecture.

2 Busking, 1984
A dream sequence from Give My Regards To Broad Street features Macca busking outside Leicester Square tube.

3 Give My Regards To Broad Street computer game, 1984
This appalling Commodore 64 game based on the film sees Macca taking a cab around London to a brilliant, blippy 8-bit soundtrack of Band On The Run.

4 London Town, 1978
Paul and Linda take a boat trip down the Thames to promote London Town. Features many bridges and some fish and chips.

5 Oxford Street, 1983
And here’s Macca nipping round the West End in the back of a cab with Lesley Ash.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z6dHRTQH-js

 

Look At Life – London newsreel bonanza

I’ve just come across a treasure trove on You Tube of old Rank Look At Life newsreels, each ten-minutes long and looking at different aspects of London life. There are some real treats to be found, but here are a few I enjoyed when I should have been working, or at least making a cup of tea.

Members only, 1965 – inside London’s private clubs

Coffee bar, 1959 – the new world of Soho’s coffee shops

Goodbye, Piccadilly, 1967 – a portraiof Piccadilly Circus

In Gear, 1967 – an iconoclastic look at Swinging London

Top People, 1960 – the crazy world of highrise living

Shopping By The Ton, 1960 – Covent Garden, Smithfield and Billingsgate markets

Report on a River, 1963 – a love letter to the Thames

Nature: an apology

I was born in Epsom, one of those places on the fringe of London that mark the very boundary of the city, the point at which tarmac gives way to soil. As the picture below shows, just a few hundred yards from my road, Hookfield, the country begins in all its greenness.

This never much interested me in my youth. I was always more attracted by town than country. Nature passed me by. When I moved into the city proper, I took little notice in the pike or herons I saw from my boat on Regent’s Canal, or the ring-necked parakeets and woodpeckers I later found in Brockwell Park. If somebody told me they saw a badger in Regent’s Park or a cormorant on the Thames, I cared not a jot. And who needed peace and still when you had Hampstead Heath or Richmond Park nearby, even if I rarely actually bothered to go there.

A month in the Scottish Highlands changed that. For the first time I was able to observe hedgehogs, adders, shrews, woodmice, weasels, deer and eagles in the wild, and see traces of badgers, pine martens and wildcats. The sheer scale of the country was extraordinary, from the peaks of the Munros, to the endlessly unfolding glens. It was eye-opening and life-affirming.

Returning to London was difficult. I had previously viewed the city’s numerous parks as pastoral paradises. Now they seemed liked scratty scraps of green, a sad imitation of the real thing. The battering noise, smell and greyness of London was overwhelming.

But nature is still here, if we look for it. It’s there in the foxhole that occasionally appears at the bottom of my garden. It’s there in the resilient, remarkable weeds and visiting birds, as lovingly chronicled in Richard Mabey’s essential London wildlife book ‘The Unofficial Countryside‘. It’s there in Tales Of The City, the blog of Mel Harrison, in which she charts encounters with owls, snowflakes and brambles. It’s there in Herb Lester’s Untamed London map, which records those places ‘where nature still runs wild in the big city.

As I walked home from taking my daughter to nursery this week, along the horrible, traffic-clogged hill that takes cars from Herne Hill to Camberwell, I heard a faint, familiar sound as I passed a bus stop. It was the chirruping of a grasshopper. I stopped and looked and found it on a hedge. It looked at me, quite unmoved, before continuing to sing (or stridulate) defiantly. We gazed at each other for a minute, while commuters bustled past on foot and in car, and then quietly, and more contentedly, I went about my way.

London’s floating world

When I first moved to London in 1996 I lived on a boat. This is one of a number of articles I’ve written about this experience. It appeared in ‘Talk Of The Town’, the Independent On Sunday’s short-lived New Yorker-style supplement, on April 20, 2003.

Heading north from the Surrey suburbs, the back seat of my dad’s car stacked with clothes, books and CDs, it all seemed straightforward. I was a boat sitter, pure and simple, looking after a canal boat moored in Lisson Grove (where was that? Who cared?) for a couple of months, just the summer, while I waited for something better, something drier to come along. It was a foothold into London life, but no more. I certainly wouldn’t be there for long.

That was seven years ago. This summer, I’ll finally be packing up my bric-a-brac, much of it the same in fact, and heading back south over the water, back to dry land. Boat life is over; while it lasted, it was everything.

In the summer of 1996, Dazzler was – is, the old girl still exists after all – a small, slapdash, cosy vessel, ineptly painted in green and red and just 23 feet from bow to stern. But inside was everything that young man, newly freed from home, would ever need. TV, fridge, oven, shower, toilet, double bed and an 0171 telephone number; Camden was a mile in one direction, Notting Hill a mile in the other and the West End just a short trek south. Idyllic.

The mooring itself was ludicrously unattractive, a slab of urban ugliness slapped between the twin charms of Regent’s Park and picture perfect Little Venice (‘Do you live in Little Venice?’ people would ask. ‘Not quite,’ I’d reply). On one side of the ragged and uneven towpath, weeds spilling through the cracks, was a huge brown-brick electrical substation that, we would proudly boast, had once been a target for IRA bombers. Periodically, it would let forth a monstrous, shuddering belch as it poured electricity through the wires that ran along the road at the top of the towpath. On the other side was a massive, grey, sprawling council estate, built upon the site of an old schoolyard and now home to lairy kids who, every school holiday without fail, would pelt our pretty, targetable boats with bricks and bottles. ‘A narrowboat? It must be so peaceful,’ people would ask. ‘Not quite,’ I’d reply.

At first, my fellow boaters were an intimidating lot. They’d gather by the largest boat, so big it was moored parallel with the towpath rather than sticking out into the canal as the others were. It was a long, hot summer and the crowds would stand at the nearby barbecue drinking, chatting and laughing, everybody brown and weathered, with hands and torsos lined by ropes and engines the hard outdoors. They’d fall silent as I, pasty pale and thin with unmarked skin, scurried past. One or two would maybe nod in vague recognition. ‘New lad, Dazzler,’ the whispered explanation would follow me aboard, where I would shut the curtains and turn up the music to drown out the carousing that lasted long into the night.

It was thanks to my next-door neighbour that I broke through and become an honorary boater. She was my age, bright, attractive, posh and loud. Great fun. A bit loopy. A powerful personality, she forced her friendship upon me, and me upon my neighbours. I learnt who they were: the actors, perennially resting, the couriers, students, bankrupts, welders, writers, dossers and drinkers; riff-raff, drifters from the acceptable fringes of society. Once a year this patchwork neighbourhood would, in its entirety, up moorings and take their boats round the London ring, from Paddington to Limehouse, Limehouse to Brentford, Brentford to Paddington. Friends and neighbours waving to each other and taking photographs as they floated past the Houses of Parliament.

Nights on the ring, like nights on the towpath, would be fabulous social affairs. Barbecues would last all summer long. Sometimes, you’d be on your way home, or heading out, on a Friday night and be asked to stop and have a drink with one of the gossipy groups that would inevitably congregate along the towpath at the first sight of sunshine. Bottle followed bottle and so Friday would slip into Saturday and Saturday would become Sunday. Lazy, warm and indolent. Before long, I came to recognise another pattern: one of new arrivals. Although I felt it had taken me an age to be accepted I soon realised that it had happened practically overnight. So it was with others. You’d meet them briefly one weekend; a week later they’d be taking to your old friends as if they were their old friends. Also routine was the way I’d been dragged in – renting for a few months and staying for a few years. Fresh faces – passing friends or overnight guests – would still be there weeks, months, years later, joining the throng round the barbecue, laughing at joggers and in turn scrutinising new faces. It had that appeal, that attraction for a certain kind of person.

Time passes and things change and London’s creeping gentrification is difficult for even this hardbitten community to avoid. A new breed cottoned on to our secret life. ‘But boats in central London must be very expensive?’ people would ask. ‘Not quite,’ I’d reply.

Boaters realised that the floating houses they owned were fetching London property-market rates. Drifters by nature, they moved on and away, to other ways of life, to other moorings in other parts of the country. Having appeared abruptly, they faded away, appearing less and less often, their places taken by bankers and accountants and managers and assorted nine-to-fivers. Or so it seems.

Some remain, those who make a living of the boats and off the new green boaters, still gathering in ever-decreasing to chuckle about the newbies and exchange news about old friends. Stories are swapped. Of Pump-Out Mick, who sold a boat and disappeared, they said, when he was told he had months to live. Of the bon vivant banker turned vicar, who married my next-door neighbour and took their boat to Cambridge. Of Irish Eddie, whose wife would return from work to measure his humour by the amount of wine he’d consumed – ‘so it’s been a tw0-bottle lunch has it Eddie?’ she’d say if he was being particularly gregarious. Of others: Frank, the one-time ‘Dr Who’ monster, Buzz the publican, Yorkshire Mick, the ice-cream seller and Smiley Pete. ‘You must have met some interesting characters,’ people would ask. Oh, quite.

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