Category Archives: Secret London

Secret London: more streets beneath London streets

A fascinating, I think anyway, footnote to my previous post about the secret streets beneath London comes courtesy of reader Steve Lloyd.  Although it may raise more questions that it answers.

Steve worked at shoe shop Lilley & Skinner in the early 1980s and thinks the abandoned Victorian shops beneath Selfridges as seen at around 31 minutes in Malcolm McLaren’s The Ghosts of Oxford Street, may have been located in their basement. I’ll let Steve take up the story.

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‘In the early 80s I was manager of Lilley & Skinner at 356-360 Oxford Street (the largest shoe store in the world according to the Guinness Book of Records). The staff entrance to the store was at the rear along Barrett Street. Here was a short driveway downhill into the building where I used to park.Also situated here was the maintenance department and adjacent was a concrete staircase which led down to several lower levels that were really no more than cellars. The lads in maintenance had told me about the ‘old street’ that was down there and took me down one day to have  to have a look.

Though of course very interesting there was not a lot to see, just a bit of old shop front under some arches and some cobbled street. The lads said that the council had put a preservation order on it and that we weren’t allowed to use the space in any way.

I found some stills from The Ghosts of Oxford Street a couple of years ago after I saw it discussed on this forum and I have to say that they are exactly how I remember the site at Lilley & Skinner.

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The first is one of the arches and the second is the piece of shop front and window frame. Entering the right of the store from Oxford Street you’d go downstairs to the Mens department on the lower ground floor and then there was another department (Tall and Small) at lower lower ground floor, which was on the left hand side of the building. Our secret street was a couple of levels down from that.’
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So there we go. Is this the true location of the secret street beneath Oxford Street? Does it really have a preservation order from the council? And if so, does it still exist? The site at 360 Oxford Street, incidentally, is now a branch of Forever 21.

Secret London: streets beneath streets of London

Paul, the librarian at Time Out, first told me about the street beneath Charing Cross Road in around 2005. He promised to show it to me, but never did.

Then, last month, I saw it. I was mooching around Cambridge Circus, noting the loss of London’s best-named book shop, Lovejoys, a landmark from the time I used to be a dedicated fanzine-browser across the road at Sportpages, also since departed. I had always assumed Lovejoys was a wittily named Soho porn shop, but it actually stocked cheap classics and DVDs. The shop taking over the site will be a sex shop it seems, albeit of the modern, seedless, air-brushed, air-conditioned variety rather than Soho’s traditional damp basement. With the erasure of any trace of character at the arse-end of Berwick Street, the old Soho sex shop is nearly gone. Indeed, much of this post is about things that have been removed, including Paul the librarian, who left Time Out shortly before I did.

As I crossed Charing Cross Road from Soho and stood on an island in the middle of the road waiting for a No 24 bus to pass, I happened to look into the grille beneath my feet. I have instinctive curiosity when it comes to London holes but this is the first time I’ve really seen anything of interest, as, to my surprise, I could make out what appeared to be a subterranean street sign set into the wall a few feet below the ground.

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I leaned in closer and there they were – not one, but two street signs for Little Compton Street, one blue enamel and the other painted on to brick. Here was London’s buried street.

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Although Little Compton Street has its own Wikipedia page, it is not entirely clear how the signs got here. The street itself was obliterated by the construction of Charing Cross Road – here you can see Little Compton Street on an old map of 1868, intersecting with Crown Street (which is marked by green as Soho’s border, though surely red would be more appropriate) just before Cambridge Circus. Little Compton Street ceased to exist in around 1896 and is now part of the Cambridge Circus utility tunnels, which some urban explorers write about here. (Apparently, Rimbaud and Verlaine used to drink in a pub on Little Compton Street during their dramatic London stay.)

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Were the underground signs accidentally left behind when Charing Cross Road was run roughshod over the top of Crown Street or was it a careful act of preservation by an unnaturally thoughtful council? Or were they removed from a wall by unknown hand and deliberately placed down here, where Little Compton Street has existed ever since, entombed beneath London feet and offering a tantalising glimpse of those fantasy Londons from countless dreams and dramas. There’s an echo of China Mieville, Neil Gaiman and the Borribles, but also of Malcolm McLaren’s mysterious and misremembered subterranean Victorian road (neatly discussed here) that is said to exist intact beneath Selfridges on Oxford Street.

One wonders whether the brutal Crossrail redevelopment of this bedraggled part of the West End will allow any such traces to remain. I hope so. And I hope they also have this last-gasp, accidental feel, of something that London can’t quite let go, like dying fingernails clawing a wall, leaving behind a ghost, a whisper, of one of London’s many pasts.

For some great old images of Charing Cross Road, browse here with leisure and a little sadness.

Know London

City-lit London

This is an edited extract of an introduction I wrote for City-Lit London, a superb anthology of London writing, from 2009.

I don’t really know London. This despite having lived and worked within the collar of the M25 for my entire life, something that is simultaneously a source of great pride and creeping shame. I’ve explored it, sure. I’ve gazed down at dawn on drowsy Londoners from atop a thirteenth-century church tower in Hackney. I’ve listened to the hum of traffic passing overhead from deep within the buried Fleet River beneath Holborn Circus. I’ve walked the Thames one Sunday afternoon from St Paul’s to Hampton Court, been to the end of more than half the tube lines, sniffed Billingsgate Market’s early-morning buzz and fed the black-tongued giraffes at London Zoo. I’ve even travelled every bus from 1 to 50 in numerical order, a task that’s taken me to every point of the compass from Debden in the north-east to Fullwell in the south-west (no, I’d never heard of them before I started, either). But I still don’t know London. Not really. There are vast tracts of its urban geography that are a total mystery to me, a no-man’s land, vacant lots, blank space in my internal A-Z.

This is not an unusual condition. Indeed, it might even be a necessity for living a sane, balanced London life because most of the city’s residents seem to suffer from it, some quite contentedly, perfectly happy to stay within the few square miles where they live and the West End where they work. This could be because there is simply too much London to handle ― too many streets, too many people, too much history, too many inconsistencies. The London cabby, scientists say, has developed a larger-than-average hippocampus ― the part of the brain that processes navigation – simply to cope with all the information. One of them, Fred Housego, even won ‘Mastermind’ in 1980.

Most of us don’t even try to deal with all this geographical sludge. In Soft City, Jonathan Raban’s charismatic study of the modern city from 1974, he noted: ‘The Greater London Council is responsible for a sprawl shaped like a rugby ball about twenty-five miles long and twenty miles wide; my London is a concise kidney-shaped patch within that space, in which no point is more than seven miles from any other… I hardly ever trespass beyond those limits, and when I do, I feel I’m in foreign territory, a landscape of hazard and rumour. Like any tribesman hedging himself in behind a stockade of taboos, I mark my boundaries with graveyards, terminal transportation points and wildernesses. Beyond them, nothing is to be trusted and anything might happen.’

This is a common way of behaving, retreating within self-imposed borders and putting up the fences to the darkness on the other side. It’s captured by Tarquin Hall’s passage from Salaam Brick Lane and the stark single-line confession: ‘Most of London, the city of my birth, was as foreign to me as Prague’. The bard of Cricklewood, Alan Coren, explored a related theme in typically whimsical fashion in which he imagined his intended tour of all the London landmarks he has never actually visited – the Tower of London the Monument and the Serpentine — having decided to leave that sort of thing to the tourists.

No wonder and no shame. If you’re born in Harrow, what should you understand of Harlow? If you live near Crystal Palace park, why would you need to know Hampstead Heath? How many Londoners have ever toured the Houses of Parliament or been into the Whispering Gallery of St Paul’s? The greatest area of neglect is the City — if you don’t work within that glorious square mile that contains all history from the Romans to the Credit Crunch why would you ever have a reason to go there? Londoners leave it to tourists and bankers.

And then there are the contradictions. This is the city that features some of the wealthiest real estate within some of the most deprived boroughs in the United Kingdom; the city whose ships helped spread English around the world but is now home to more than 250 different languages and has schools where the native tongue is barely spoken; the city that when called upon to appoint a new mayor, replaced a left-wing, working-class, car-hating socialist with a right-wing, public-school educated, neo-Thatcherite motoring correspondent, two iconoclasts who seemed to have nothing in common bar a quick wit and mutual contempt for orthodoxy. Who can get their head round that?

So, how can you learn to master this metropolis, the first great city of the modern age and still the world leader in art and commerce? Well, you could follow in the footsteps of Phyllis Pearsall, the creator of the single greatest London book – and one that is understandably omitted from this anthology – the A-Z. In the 1930s, Pearsall claimed to have walked every one of London’s 23,000 streets – that’s around 3,000 miles of serious perambulation – in her determination to produce the most comprehensive map of London that is humanly possible. It’s almost certainly an urban myth, but the conceit is admirable.

Alternatively, you could save on leatherwear and consult some of the other classics of London literature, those writers who have made it their business to understand the city, or at least their particular patch of it. After all, will anybody ever show off Soho like Colin McInnes, or capture Camden like David Thomson? Virginia Woolf’s West End is so beautifully developed, so perfectly drawn, so hyper-real, it almost dwarfs the genuine article. And Monica Ali’s Brick Lane places it as firmly on the tourist map as Big Ben and the Wheel, so you can tell yourself that there really isn’t any need to check it out for yourself.

London books allow you to travel in time as well as space. McInnes’s Soho is the good one, the one we’ve all heard about from the 1950s, when it was still raw, neon-lit, jazz-fuelled and edgy rather than a shallow cluster of over-priced restaurants and drunken daytrippers wondering where all the loucheness has gone (it’s still there, just, in secret drinking clubs and members’ bars hidden behind nameless Georgian façades). And Thomson’s Camden is one on the verge of massive change, a working-class district of pubs and markets that is about to experience the first invasion by the middle-classes that will recondition the area beyond all recognition, setting off a chain reaction of gentrification around London’s inner suburbs from Notting Hill to Islington. For those of us who only know these places in their current incarnation, this stuff has an extraordinary archaeological value that their authors could never have intended, like the background of family photographs that show furniture and fittings everybody forgot about long ago because they never bothered to record them.

But that’s not to say things were so much better in the old says. Indeed, one of the most important things about this volume is that it emphasises the current prodigious strength of London writing. Yes, there’s Dickens and Woolf and Conrad and Wilde and Conan Doyle – as there should be – but there’s also Ackroyd and Sinclair and Self, the titanic trinity of contemporary London writing. Since the 1980s they have done more to resurrect the concept of London writing as a standalone genre than anybody since the Victorians, when London, the New Jerusalem, was seen to embody the contradictory values of Empire and became a rich source of fiction and journalism. They have encouraged the rediscovery of some of the lost classics of London literature and fostered the climate in which anthologies like this one can flourish. In their wake, modern classics have followed, from Justin Cartwright’s snappy satirical novel Look At It This Way to Sukhdev Sandhu’s invaluable nocturnal jaunts into the belly of sleeping London in Night Haunts. This regained respect for London writing also allows the voice of the new Londoner to be heard — the 27.1 per cent of the population that the 2001 census considered to be non-native-born ― through authors such as Xiaolu Guo, with her faux-naïve extracts from A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers. In Rebecca Taylor’s ‘London Lives’ we even meet one of these recent arrivals in the form of a young brother and sister who travel to London from Poland to begin their new lives, part of the huge wave of Eastern European immigration that has transformed the city in recent years.

It is authors from this final category who could provide some of the finest and boldest London writing of the twenty-first century, because they will come to the city with a fresh mind and open eye, prepared to live and work in those parts of London that are closed by personal choice to most natives. None of them, of course, will ever really get on top of London, even if they choose to stay here for the rest of their lives — but every little bit helps. And if you put all the fragments together, you may one day get something close to the full picture, the London that we all love, even if it’s not the one we know.

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.

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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.

Secret London: torture at the Temple

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exploring the lost Lea Valley with Saint Etienne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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. 

 

Secret London: the Science Museum’s palace of pills

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Time Out recently asked me to contribute to a piece on London’s 10 weirdest museum exhibits (something I’ve blogged about previously). My favourite previously overlooked discovery was the above ‘Palace Of Pills’ at the Science Museum.

This extraordinary sculpture, constructed from old pills, medicine bottles and syringes, was made for a campaign run by the East London Health Project between 1978 and 1980. The ELHP was a coalition of health worker unions and local Trades Councils who were campaigning against cuts to the NHS as well as highlighting other healthcare issues facing Londoners in the late-70s. This was the first time the NHS had really come under sustained attack from any political party since it was formed in the aftermath of the Second World War.

The Palace of Pills was created by artists Peter Dunn and Loraine Leeson, who built the sculpture in their studio using old pill bottles that they acquired from the ELHP’s partners working in the health service. They then photographed it for a poster that was displayed in waiting rooms and doctor surgeries.

‘We did eight posters,’ Leeson told me. ‘The Palace of Pills was made for a poster that talked about how the drug companies were dominating what was happening in health, and for reasons of profit not health.’ The model was too big for the studio and already starting to deteriorate when the Science Museum asked if they could have it. ‘They saw it as a curiosity but I’m delighted it still exists,’ she says. Leeson and Dunn took the experience into creating posters for further pioneering campaigns against the redevelopment of Docklands.

Jimmy Page, Aleister Crowley and the curse of Eddie And The Hot Rods

 

For the full story of the curse of “Do Anything You Wanna Do”, see my interview with the band in this month’s issue of Uncut magazine. 

It’s easy to turn your nose up at any mention of Aleister Crowley, especially if you have little interest in the occult and esoteric world in which he thrived. But to do so means ignoring the man’s often brilliant writing – his Diary of A Drug Fiend is a superior pulp classic, for instance – and also missing out on some of the greatest anecdotes of the 20th century.

For the uninitiated, Crowley (1875–1947) was a British writer who used sex, drugs and magic –often simultaneously – to try to attain altered states of mind and who achieved such a level of notoriety for his activities that he was brandished the ‘wickedest man in the world’. If not wicked, he was certainly a character. As well as signing his letters ‘666’ and conducting numerous affairs with lovers of both sexes, he climbed mountains, wrote pornographic poetry, fraternised with novelists, artists and spies and attempted to write a new American national anthem.

To give a flavour of Crowley’s often bizarre intersections with normal society, in the early days of the Second World War he was tapped up by British intelligence officer Ian Fleming, who asked him to take part in an ‘occult disinformation plot’ against Adolf Hitler’s deputy Rudolf Hess, a fervent believer in astrology and the occult. Crowley was keen, but the plot was ultimately shelved; Fleming, however, later used Crowley as the model for villain Le Chiffre in his first James Bond novel, Casino Royale, in 1953. Another fan of Crowley was Scientology founder L Ron Hubbard. It is claimed Hubbard took part in ‘sexual magick’ (magick was a term favoured by Crowley) with a couple called Jack and Betty Parsons in an attempting to create a magical child, thus fulfilling a prophecy from Crowley’s The Book Of The Law. Crowley was not impressed, writing in one of his typically entertaining letters: ‘Apparently Parsons or Hubbard or somebody is producing a Moonchild. I get fairly frantic when I contemplate the idiocy of these louts.’

Crowley was bisexual and a heavy drug user, eventually becoming addicted to heroin. He also enjoyed peyote, handing it out at parties. On one occasion in New York he gave some to the novelist Theodore Dreiser, who became uncomfortable and asked if there was a doctor in the area. ‘I don’t know about a doctor,’ said Crowley, ‘But there’s a first-class undertaker on the corner of 33rd and 6th.’

This freeness with sex and drugs saw Crowley embraced by the rock and roll generation, particularly after he appeared on the cover of Sgt Pepper. But the story behind another of Crowley’s cover appearances is not so well known. In 1977, Essex rockers Eddie And The Hot Rod wrote a song that was partly inspired by Crowley’s famous motto: ‘Do what thou wilt is the whole of the law’. The band rewrote this as “Do Anything You Wanna Do”, a spirited ode to self-empowerment, and attached the lyrics to a perky pop tune that quickly reached the Top Ten. It was engineered by a young Steve Lillwhite, who recorded it at Island’s studio in Notting Hill.

In recognition of his contribution to the song’s genesis, the band decided to put Crowley on the cover of the single. But they also felt his glowering visage was not really in the spirit of the band, so manager Ed Hollis (brother of Talk Talk’s Mark) attached a slightly comical pair of Mickey Mouse ears to Crowley’s head.

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Great cover, big mistake. According to rumour, this image soon came to the attention of Jimmy Page, a Crowley apostle who lived in the Crowley’s old house, had a vast collection of Crowley paraphernalia and was fascinated by the occult. Page had orchestrated the Crowley-influenced occult symbolism that adored Led Zeppelin’s fourth album, which incidentally was also record at Island Studios.

The band were told that Page placed a curse upon Eddie And The Hot Rods for their disrespectful treatment of the Great Beast. From that moment, the band were plagued by problems. They were dropped by their label, their manager became hooked on heroin and they never bothered the higher reaches of the chart again. From behind his Mickey Mouse ears and with the help of satanic rock royalty, Crowley had got his revenge. As bassist Paul Gray told me, ‘Weird shit happened after that. A lot of people said we shouldn’t have fucked about with Crowley.’

The Special London Bridge Special

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

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