Wednesday, November 28, 2012

‘The Ultimate Guide to Secret London’ at 55 Broadway, 27th November 2012

The idea of a ‘secret’ London is a seductive one.  Who knows what lurks behind dilapidated Victorian facades, at the end of sinister winding alleyways or tucked away in church crypts?  You hear tales of abandoned tube stations, nuclear bunkers under roundsabouts, warrens of government tunnels in Whitehall; another London, off limits and subterranean.  Our guide to this mysterious world was Matt Brown, editor of The Londonist, the single most useful website for anyone wanting to know what’s going on in London.  

55 Broadway
Appropriately given the subject matter, the talk was in a secret location: the 10th floor of the Grade I listed headquarters of the London Underground, 55 Broadway.  Built in 1929 and designed by architect Charles Holden it sits directly on top of St James Park underground station.  There’s an aura of importance to the building, the art deco detailing brings to mind streamlined and retro aerodynamic design, the dawning of the age of mechanised speed.  The lobby is filled with awards won by London Underground and there’s a fantastic ticking machine wired into the tube network showing the frequency of the trains rumbling below us.  Up on the tenth floor we’re allowed out onto the roof gardens and even though it’s a drizzly winter night the view is pretty stunning.  The landmarks of London are laid out like a postcard in front of us: the London Eye, Westminster Cathedral, the BT Tower, St Paul’s Cathedral and their newest sibling, the brightly lit Shard. 

The new concourse at Kings Cross.
I was initially a little apprehensive that this talk would essentially be a long list of trivia, a mound of interesting yet disconnected facts.  Very quickly I realised this wasn’t going to be the case; Matt’s perspective on the city is that of London as process.  This philosophy doesn’t treat the past as simply something to be memorised in a vacuum, but as the fuel that powers and shapes our modern city.  He began with a great example of this, explaining how the curve of the new concourse at King’s Cross Station was directly influenced by glacial movements during the last ice age.  To summarise; the curve of the concourse derives from the curve of the Great Northern Hotel (in the top right of the image); the curve of the hotel followed the path of Pancras Road; Pancras Road was built to follow the now buried River Fleet and the River Fleet’s course was influenced by glacial movements 10,000 years ago.  At this point we should note that the brand new concourse resembles… a glacier!

During this section of the talk Matt shows us an image of a pastoral St Pancras Old Church.  Absolutely nothing about this image screams ‘London’.  We see open fields, clear skies, wild woodland – there are men lazily paddling their feet in the River Fleet.   Without context you might expect it to be a representation of some sleepy countryside hamlet.  But it’s not.  I cycle through this pastoral landscape on my way to gigs in Camden. The church is still there, marooned like a galleon frozen in ice, but the city has swallowed up the tranquillity around it.  Red bricked tower blocks have replaced the woods and the clear waters of the Fleet are now buried deep underground, a conduit for North London’s excrement.  Knowledge like this is a real secret London, landscapes that only exist in the mind, anchored in reality by survivors like the Old Church.

But what of the London that’s been utterly obliterated?  Matt shows us his research into the defensive fortifications built to protect London during the Civil War.  These were an enormously complex and large-scale construction project of which there is little or no trace.  There’s not even any definitive maps of where they might have been, only guesses based on topology, slightly unreliable history books and street names.  It’s disconcerting to think that huge things like these forts can not only vanish physically, but mentally too.  It’s not like the Civil War was that long ago, relatively speaking.  I can walk from my house and look at a city wall the Romans built, so you’d expect there to be some evidence around.   Invisible forgotten structures like this are a great reminder of the transience of the city.  What appears permanent can be wiped away very quickly by disaster, bombs or the simple and steady march of progress.

Where archaeologists think the wall and forts might have been.
The contrast between what survives and what becomes hopelessly obscure is an interesting and seemingly illogical one.  Matt outlines a series of secret disasters and tragedies that pepper the history of London, yet haven’t entered popular consciousness and don’t crop up in history books.  These include a great fire on London Bridge in 1212.  The bridge at this time had houses on it and when a fire began burning down the great cathedral at Southwark people rushed across to the south side of the bridge to rubberneck.  Unfortunately winds carried embers across to the north side, setting the houses aflame there.  Everyone on the bridge was now caught between two advancing infernos.  An estimated 2,000 people died, the worst single disaster in the history of London.  You won’t see any plaques in memorial to this or view any dramatic paintings of it in art galleries.  Apparently even in history books about London Bridge there is scarcely a mention. 

In a similar, and far more recent vein is a fire in Denmark Street in 1980, where 37 burned to death.  Again no marker or memorial, the incident has almost completely disappeared from public consciousness, perhaps due to the fact that those who died were immigrants with few to publically mourn their deaths. 

 This is pretty miserable stuff, why would events like these be forgotten so readily?  It’s hard to ascribe any kind of malice to this amnesia, yet in some cases it’s clear certain people would rather things be forgotten.  In 1903 the Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum caught fire.  52 female patients died in horrifying circumstances, their charred bodies found huddled together, pressed into corners as they futilely tried to escape the flames.  So what of these dank rooms where terrified women gasped their last, desperate, smoke filled breaths?  Nowadays you’re likely to find an IKEA sofa, or a huge flatscreen TV in that spot.  Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum is now the charmingly named ‘Princess Park Manor’, luxury flats for discerning high flying Londoners.  Matt tells us about the ‘history’ section on their (pretty crappy) website, explaining that they have the vaguest possible description of the place, not even bothering to mention that it was once a hospital let alone that it was the site of the worst peacetime fire in London since medieval times.  These housing developers would just prefer we all forgot about that nasty business and focus on what’s important about the history of the place, namely that “the corridor that once ran across the width of the building was at one time the longest in Europe”.  Wow.  Now that’s history you can use!

The contrast to this crushing sense of doom is what’s unexpectedly remembered rather than forgotten.  It’s 750AD, and a beautiful sunny day in the countryside that will eventually be north east London.  Deep within a field a man looks wearily up from the sun and wipes the sweat from his brow.  He thinks for a moment about the flagon of beer waiting for him back home, a reward for a hard day’s work.  Buoyed with anticipation he cheerily whips his oxen on; the fields must be ploughed.  He doesn’t live a particularly extravagant life, but he’s got his own hard won bit of land to farm and a family to feed.  Life is good.  There are men like him dotted all over Anglo-Saxon England, all of them fated to be lost to history.  But not Mr Wemba.

An Anglo-Saxon farmer working his lea.  Much like I imagine Mr Wemba may well have done.
1,250 years later, the same spot.  Thousands of drunken England fans stream across the concrete, flags waving, horns tooting, a riot of white and red.  As one they chant ‘Wemba-ley Wemba-ley, Wemba-ley!”.  This Anglo-Saxon farmer’s name has been passed down through the years, being immortalised in the globally famous ‘Wembley Stadium’.  The etymology of place names is always fascinating, but particularly when it reaches back this far.  Knowing the secret origins of these places lets you inhabit the past.  A bus ride between Peckham and Brixton becomes a quest from a tiny village on the River Peck that ends at the ancient stone of the Saxon Lord Brixi.  And then you can pop into the Ritzy for a pint.  Reading about the distant past can feel impossibly alien, but secret and obscure knowledge like this underlines the fact that although conditions may be vastly different, we also have much in common with our ancestors. 

After Matt had finished his talk he opened the floor to questions, with the caveat that we must all outline our idea of a secret part of London.  Everyone had their own favourite spot and it’s uplifting that even in a city that occasionally feels full to bursting point there are  still personal and private places.  What I realised during this talk is that ‘secret London’ is not about pointing out obscure buildings or being able to list off trivia.  It’s about the way that you apply your knowledge of the past to your present.  Everyone has their own truly secret London mapped out in their heads.  The park bench where you first kissed your partner, the Soho alleyway in which you gracelessly collapsed in a pile of your own vomit or simply the nicest place to get a drink.  This concept is perhaps best visualised in Stephen Walter’s “The Island”, an immensely detailed personal map of the city.  We all have one of these maps of London in our heads, a patchwork blanket of memories, practical knowledge, romance, history and drama.  That’s a real secret London.

Stephen Walter's 'The Island'
Click for bigger, but not quite big enough.  Go and see it somewhere!
Big thanks to Matt Brown for putting on such a great talk, for the London Transport Museum for helping organise it and to TFL for opening up the 10th floor of 55 Broadway as a venue. 

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