Category Archives: Herne Hill

Brixton Bugle: the future of local newspapers?

Even in these days of live blogs, hyperlocal websites and social media, it can be easy to miss news stories. While national attention focuses disproportionately on a handful of big stories – whether that be tweeting footballers or dead paedophiles – smaller bits of news, especially local news, can fall through the gaps of newspapers that often seem to be more interested in filling their pages with the contrived comments of tedious columnists so snobbish, banal and privileged they could be auditioning for a lead role in the next Ian McEwan novel. And the time spent registering a new profile so you can leave an angry comment about their latest inanities makes it difficult for the average person to find those precious seconds when they can check out and absorb the content of a website devoted to your local area.

This is where the traditional local newspaper used to step in, but, er, well let’s not talk about that. But in Brixton, there is a solution. The Brixton Bugle is a monthly free newspaper (affiliated to the Brixon Blog) that rounds up all the most important news in Brixton, Herne Hill, Tulse Hill and Loughborough Junction. Around 7,000 copies are published and handed out for free outside the tube once a month or given to local shops. And it’s really rather good, occasionally breaking news that the bigger but less focused South London Press can easily miss. Visually it can still be a bit shonky, but the content is good and it is easily the best way of keeping locals abreast of the changes, both large and small, taking place in Brixton (such as the plans to knock down the local Rec Centre), especially since the council’s own free paper was scrapped.

This sort of grassroots, hyperlocal newspaper, with low distribution costs, small staff, funded by local advertising and with close and committed connections to the area in which it operates has real potential, which is presumably why the Lebedevs’ Journalism Foundation has given the Bugle a grant and mentoring support.

There are plenty of London areas – the south-east for instance, or Barnet – that do not receive the attention they deserve from the existing print media, but which have strong blogging communities. Their work is impressive and they often get lots of attention when they break big stories, but there is still nothing quite like print for keeping an entire community – not just political nerds and news junkies – involved and aware of local developments that do not have headline-grabbing power. Will they heed Brixton’s trumpet call? Here’s hoping.

My interview with Brixton Bugle co-editor Tim Dickens for Completely London

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Brixton riots in SE24: then and now

Chaucer Road, SE24 after the 1981 Brixton riots

Chaucer Road, SE24 in 2012

The top picture is taken from Taschen’s superb new book of London photographs, London: Portrait of a City.

HG Wells, My White Bicycle and hygienic seats: a brief history of cycling in London

This piece is in the current issue of BMI Voyager. The photo of Herne Hill Velodrome is via Adrian Fitch

It’s unlikely that any of the world’s top cyclists will be thinking about London’s history with the bike when they set off from the Mall for the gruelling 250km Olympic road race on Saturday (July 28th), but if they do pause for thought, they’re starting from the right place. The route will take cyclists through Putney, Richmond and Hampton Court deep into the scenic Surrey countryside of Woking and round Box Hill, but it starts and finishes near Hyde Park, which is where cycling in the UK first really took off.

Cycling had premiered in Battersea Park in the 1880s, but it was in Hyde Park that the great Victorian cycling craze went overground in the 1890s. London was still a horse-happy city at the time, so when 2,000 cyclists – mainly women, dressed demurely with natty bonnets– formed a parade to cycle round the park in the spring of 1896, those on horseback didn’t know quite what to make of it. Bicycles were still a new thing. Penny-Farthings had been around for a while, but were about as common a sight in Victorian London as they are now, and it took the invention of the ‘safety bicycle’ – one with wheels the same size and pneumatic tyres – in the 1880s for that to change. Indeed, such was the enthusiasm with which women took up cycling, that Victorians were torn between trying to find ways to make money out of it, and trying to ensure it was morally appropriate. With typical Victorian ingenuity, they managed to do both – the Chaperon Cyclists’ Association supplied female escorts for solo women cyclists for 3s 6d an hour, while to avoid any dangerous friction you could purchase special ‘hygienic’ bike seats, which had a modest dip in the area where a lady’s genitalia would usually meet the saddle.

Hygienic seat or not, this was, almost without exception, a hobby enjoyed by the upper classes – the Lady Cyclists Association of 1895 was founded by the Countess of Malmesbury – and the Olympic road race aptly passes through some of the poshest areas of London, along the luxury-lined Knightsbridge and down through the smart streets of Chelsea to Putney Bridge. In 1896, the Countess wrote wittily in The Badminton Magazine about the dangers of cycling around these very Belgravia streets thanks toa new sport’ devised by Hansom Cab driver: ‘chasing the lady who rides her bicycle in the streets of the metropolis’ excited by the ‘petticoat which “half conceals, yet half reveals”… I cannot help feeling that cycling in the streets would be nicer, to use a mild expression, if he’d not try to kill me.’

It wasn’t until 1934 that a solution to this perennial problem arrived, when the UK’s first bike lane was opened not far from where the road race course makes its progress through West London. This specialist cycle lane stretched for two-and-a-half miles alongside the Western Avenue and was a belated response to the scarcely believable statistics that recorded 1,324 deaths of cyclists on British roads the previous year. Despite these awful figures, cycling groups opposed the innovation, arguing bikes should not be forced to give up their place on the road to the new-fangled motor car. It’s not an argument they were ever likely to win.

Roads will be close to traffic on July 28, however, and as the Olympic cyclists make their way towards the river, they will pass Kensington Olympia, the huge exhibition hall built in 1883 and used for all manner of spectacular entertainment –promoters would think nothing of flooding the arena to recreate Venice In London, for instance. Anything fashionable was fair game and cycling races were held here during the 1890s. A mixed-tandem race – one male rider and one female – attracted huge crowds in January 1896. Weird events like this were common at the time –the Crystal Palace in Norwood hosted a bicycle polo international in 1901 between Ireland and England (Ireland won 10-5).

After crossing Putney Bridge, the race continues through Putney, where one of London’s many Victorian velodromes was once located, drawing crowds of 10,000. Putney also featured in one of the first cycling novels, The Wheels of Chance, by HG Wells, a writer who always had an eye for a new invention. In it, the hero, Mr Hoopdriver, leaves his dull job in Putney to go on a cycling holiday on the South Coast following a route out of London very similar to the one that will be taken by the Olympic racers. The race later passes through Woking, where Wells lived and set part of War Of The Worlds – Woking has boasted a huge statue of a tripod since 1998.

From Putney, the cyclists whizz through lovely Richmond – mind the deer! – before hitting the river at Twickenham, where they pass Eel Pie Island, nexus of London’s mid-1960s rock ‘n’ roll revolution. Numerous legendary bands played shows at the charismatic old dancehall on this tiny island in the Thames, including the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Rod Stewart. Among them was Tomorrow, one of England’s first psychedelic bands (featuring Steve Howe, later of prog-monsters Yes), whose 1967 single “My White Bicycle” was a big counterculture hit in 1966. This splendid slice of trippy frippery was written in homage to the pro-cycling scheme launch by Dutch anarchist collective Provo, who left 50 unlocked white bicycles all over their home city of Amsterdam in 1965, inviting the public to enjoy ‘free communal transport’ and rid themselves from the tyranny of the automobile. The Dutch police swiftly impounded the offending bikes, but the idea finally caught on in recent years in the form of the Paris bike-sharing scheme, Vélib. This idea was appropriated by London in 2010 and came to be christened Boris Bikes after London’s mayor, Boris Johnson, who inherited the scheme from his predecessor Ken Livingstone.

Boris Bikes can be hired by anybody with a chip and pin card at around 500 docking stations in central London. The bikes come without helmet or lock and are pretty hefty, but they are a fairly common sight in London. Although there is an ‘access fee’ (£5 for a week), the first 30-minutes of any ride are free, so smart users hop between docking stations and effectively ride around London for next to nothing. It’s all part of a belated attempt to make London a more-bike friendly city – four giant bike lanes, the blue-painted Cycle Superhighways, have alsobeen created in key commuter routes, with four more planned for 2013. If you want to borrow a Boris Bike to follow the 2012 road race route be careful, as there are few docking stations outside central London and costs soon mount if you go over the initial 30 minutes – while the fines for a late return are high.

From Twickenham, the race heads through Bushy Park and passes the Tudor palace of Hampton Court, before disappearing into the Surrey countryside. After a tour of the Surrey hills, the cyclists will then make the return journey, via Kingston, to the Mall. Sadly, then, there is no time to head to south-east London, where there are a couple of other prime London cycling landmarks. The first is the Herne Hill Velodrome, tucked behind suburban houses down a quiet street near Dulwich. This is the last stadia from the 1948 London Olympics still in use today. Built in 1891, the velodrome had all but closed during the Second World War but was brought out of retirement when London was awarded the 1948 games. It’s had a few scares since then – the gorgeous Victorian grandstand has been a no-go area for years – but was recently awarded £400,000 of Olympic legacy money and plans are afoot to construct a new grandstand, cafe and gym. The venue has played its part in nurturing the latest breed of British champion – Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins raced here.

Herne Hill Velodrome

While Herne Hill lives on, the velodrome at Catford was demolished in the 1990s. Like the stadia at Putney and Herne Hill, this was built in the 1890s, when it attracted a very special guest. Absinthe-soaked dwarf artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec is usually associated with the Montmartre area of Paris, but in 1896 he turned up in the particularly drab suburb of Catford. Lautrec was a cycling fan, and had been asked by a company called Simpson to design a poster for their bike, which used a new type of chain. Lautrec was taken to the newly built Catford Velodrome to watch the bike in action during special races, set up by Simpson to advertise their product, and he produced a couple of images during his visit. The poster was one of the last he designed before his death in 1901, just as the Victorian bike craze was coming to an end.

Blank Generation: original punk posters in South London

In 1977, Gary Loveridge spotted a Damned poster that he liked the look of hanging on the wall at his local record shop in Weston Super Mare. He decided to take it. ‘It was on the wall of the listening booth. I took it off the wall, rolled it up and stuck it under my jumper. I walked out, looking very suspicious. They probably knew exactly what was going on.’

And so it began. Loveridge, a landscape gardener, now has around 250 original music posters, and 100 devoted to punk are on display until March 8 at the 198 Gallery  on Railton Road. Not all were collected in quite the clandestine way of the first, but they are all original and numerous bands are featured, including the Sex Pistols, Clash, Ramones, Lurkers, Buzzcocks, TV Personalities, Mekons, Elvis Costello, Ian Dury, PiL and Siouxsie and the Banshees.

The Damned poster that got it all started

‘This is the first time I’ve seen them all on the wall together in one place,’ says Loveridge. ‘At home they are all in tubes, some on the walls but I haven’t enough room to put them all up.’

The posters were largely used to promote LPs and singles in record shops, although there are some from bus stops and concert venues. Most such posters will have been thrown out by the stores, making such a large collection quite unusual. Loveridge collected many on his way from gigs in Bristol, and then later added to his collection at markets and record fairs.

The exhibition takes in two rooms and also features part of Loveridge’s collection of badges, flyers, fanzines and other ephemera, some of which – such as the flyers for the Sex Pistols banned tour – are much sought after. Also on display is a framed advert from 1977, cut out from a local paper, promoting a gig by a mysterious band called The Spots. Now who could they be?

Punk was an incredibly visual movement, as one would expect from something inspired by glam and Situationism and created in art schools and clothes shops, so these posters are eye-catching and iconic.  A small selection are reproduced below, but the real thrill is seeing them collectively and close-up; many have pulled from walls and windows so have an authentically battered look, while the accumulation of colour and striking design is a treat for the eye. But you’ve only got six weeks, so hurry.

Blank Generation: A Collection of Original Punk Posters, 198 Gallery, 198 Railton Road, SE24 0JT. Until March 8, 2012

Spiral Scratch by Buzzcocks

Pretty Vacant by Sex Pistols

The Clash at Brixton Academy

The Mekons at North Staffs Poly

The Pop Group and Alternative TV

Blondie poster rejected by band as it featured only Debbie Harry

Elvis Costello

Sandinista by The Clash

The Only Ones

Siouxsie And The Banshees (with Human League third on bill)

London Calling by The Clash ('two for a fiver!')

Sex Pistols - used to introduce the band to the United States

Ian Dury

Sex Pistols

The Jam

Badges and flyers

Never Mind The Bollocks beer and fanzines

Sex Pistols flyer from SPOTS tour

Secret London: stink pipes

There is one of these just around the corner from where I live.

Herne Hill stink pipe

It’s long, thin, green and old and thrusts straight into the air like a giant’s, er, finger. It’s not a telegraph pole – there are no wires coming off it – and it’s too tall to be a broken street lamp.

It is, in fact, a stink pipe, one of four such items of street furniture that can be found within a half-mile radius of Brixton Water Lane. These stink pipe were built around the same time as London’s Victorian sewer network in the 1860s and are basically just huge hollow pipes that allow potentially lethal gas to escape into the atmosphere, far above the rooftops.  They often seem to located near the locations of culverted rivers – these ones are found more or less on the route of the Effra or its tributaries – suggesting that when these rivers were incorporated into the sewer system, they required some sort of additional safety valve (the buried Fleet famously exploded at King’s Cross after just such a build-up of gas in 1846).

Some stinkpipes are rather elaborate, but the ones I’ve seen around Herne Hill and Brixton are pretty basic and utilitarian. If you want to find some finer examples, like the fine crowned stench pipes of Kennington Cross, you should check out the excellent London Stench Pipes blog, which is devoted to these marvellous oddities leftover from Victorian London.

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.

Bin Laden world exclusive from Herne Hill

Maps round-up

A quick post on maps. I have a small piece in the Independent about the Museum of London and Londonist’s forthcoming collaboration, Hand-Drawn London. This exhibition, opening on April 21, features maps drawn by Londoners.

I submitted a map drawn by four-year-old daughter of her daily walk to nursery, but it was harshly rejected. I have reproduced it here.

I have also been posting fairly regularly on maps at the Time Travel Explorer blog. Recent posts have included one on London’s first lido and another on London’s forgotten exhibition.

More London books

Continuing a bookish theme, a couple of current and forthcoming releases have caught my eye.

First is ‘London’s Lost Rivers’ by Paul Talling and published by Random House. This is the first serious update of Nicholas Barton’s classic 1950s underground river book and it will be interesting to see what new information about the Fleet, Effra, Westbourne et al that he has uncovered.

Jamrach's Menagerie

The second has been catching my eye in the window of Herne Hill Books every time I walk past it. ‘Jamrach’s Menagerie’ is a novel by Carol Birch published by Canongate.  This is a novelised account of the famous occasion a bengal tiger escaped from London petshop Jamrach’s. It was from this shop that the animal-loving artist Gabriel Dante Rossetti probably purchased the pet wombat, whose death left him so bereft.

Incidentally, if any publishers are reading this and fancy sending me London-themed books to add to my collection, my conscience would have no hesitation in happily accepting them.

A common little London house

There is nothing special about this house, other than that I live in it. It is one of hundreds of thousands of almost identical houses built in the second half of the nineteenth century for a London population that was expanding at a ferocious rate.

This was the Great Wen that William Cobbett warned about. In ‘London: The Biography’, Ackroyd quotes ‘an observer perched on top of Primrose Hill in 1862, who looked at the growing city and noted that, “the metropolis has thrown out its arms and embraced us, not yet with a stifling clutch, but with ominous closeness.”‘

In ‘London: The Unique City’, Steen Eiler Rasmussen’s classic book about London architecture, he writes about houses just like this: ‘From railroads intersecting the suburbs of London we see interminable rows of these swarthy little houses with all their protruding little kitchen-wings. It is the most compact type imaginable for a street house.’ He includes a picture and plan of these houses. Look, it’s almost indentical to mine.

There is a reason for this ‘interminable’ consistency in London housing, and like most things in this country, it is to do with class. Rasmussen explains that in London, because the class system ensured people of the same social strata would invariably live alongside each other, segregated from those richer or poorer than themselves , it was ‘possible to standardise domestic houses: as people living in the same street have the same requirements all the houses can be absolutely uniform.’

This isn’t quite true of my street – at one end there are grand five storey double-fronted detached houses, which would have been for the very rich with domestic servents, and at the other end there are two-storey railway terraces, with every possible permutation in between. This would have meant unavoidable mixing of the classes and was the result of the street having been built over a number of years, starting with the posh end near the park and ending with the common end near the station. But it is certainly true that London houses of the era are near identical.

Rasmussen also knew the exact width of of my new house – 16 foot 6 inches. He writes, ‘the common little house of which there have been built thousands and thousands is only sixteen feet six inches broad. It has probably been the ordinary size of a site since the Middle Ages… but it is difficult to get information as to how typical houses were built in former days.’ After reading this, I measured the front of my house and he was right. Now everywhere I look, from Brixton to Holloway, I see 16 foot 6 inch house fronts. Try it yourself.

So why is this? For an answer, I turned to English Heritage’s photographic collection ‘Lost London’, in which Philip Davies explains exactly why London’s houses of a certain era are all exactly the same size. He writes of ‘a secret ingredient which conferred an innate harmony on the city, and which influenced everything from the layout of an entire neighbourhood to the size of a window pane – the Imperial system of measures.’

Davies continues. ‘Neighbourhoods were laid out by surveyors who used acres, furlongs, rods and chains – measurements which had been in common usage for marking out arable land since the ninth century. An acre was the length of a furlong (660ft) and its width was one chain (66ft). For shorter lengths a perch, a pole or a rod were used. There were four rods to one chain and a London workman’s house had a frontage of one rod – 16 ft 6 in – so entire districts were created based on endogenous proportional relationships.’

As this website explains, when a landowner wished to build a series of houses for his agricultural labourers on an acre of land, the surveyor could go out with his rod and immediately estimate how many houses there was room for.

So the size of the house in which I live in the twenty-first century was decided by a scale of measurement that dates back to the Dark Ages. For those who find London’s overall sense of scale overwhelming, this internal and very visible consistency might at least provide some comfort.