Tag Archives: London

Hidden London: St. Pancras

imageI was in London recently for a meeting. Inner London and not the north-west outskirts where I live. It's a place I sort of know. Usually it's a place you pass through to central London and out again or else bound for one of the gateway train stations linking to the Midlands and North or else France and the Continent and used by millions of rail travellers each year: Euston, King's Cross and St. Pancras.

Opposite my appointment is a London landmark I've passed manyimage times but never paid attention to until now. It's an incredible architectural Grade I listed building and once the second most expensive of its kind constructed in London after St.Paul's Cathedral in its time. Across from Euston and choking in the maelstrom of heaving traffic and London's regular push'n'shove it is only 'hidden' because everyone is too busy to notice it. It is the parish church of St. Pancras and I only just learned about it because I stopped by to take notice.

imageOdd name 'St. Pancras'. Turns out it's Greek and I guess there might have been some clues for me seeing that the building mimics ancient temples on the Acropolis in Athens and I'm an Ancient History graduate. Pancratius was a 14-year-old Greek kid born of Roman citizens in the Empire. His mother died during childbirth and his father died when he was 8. Raised by his uncle in Rome, he converted to Christianity just in time for the murderous reign of Emperor Diocletian and his crackdown on the rapidly rising Christian 'cult'. He was beheaded for his faith in 304AD after refusing several times the Emperor's 'invitations' that he sacrifice to the gods of Rome. Cutting a little known story shorter, his only link to the UK was that parts of his relics were supposed to have made their way to England. St. Pancras Parish in the area around Euston, St. Pancras, Kings Cross and Russell Square are said to be among the first areas of Christian worship in the capital.

The church is not the original parish church (which can still be found hidden behind St. Pancras station). The 'new' parish church dates back to the 1800s and is a classic example of 'Greek Revival' architecture fashionable in northern Europe at the time. The magnificent entry portico is upheld by 6 impressive Ionic columns, again with a nod back to ancient Greece. The building is made of a mix of stone, Portland Stone and terracotta. Unfortunately it does not scrub up well amid the heavy traffic pollution of its surrounds despite several attempts. It was originally built to accommodate a congregation of 2,500.

The iconic star of the external architecture is the side porch imagelooking onto Euston road modelled on the Temple of the Erechtheum on the Acropolis in Athens. This stunning portico is unique among the buildings of the capital and while none of it actually comes from there it is a slice of the magnificence of ancient Athens here in London. An actual Caryatid (the female statues) from the Acropolis sits not too far away housed in the British Museum.

imageIf you are ever at Euston, King's Cross or St.Pancras and massively early for your train (as I invariably am) a visit to this church is highly recommended. For a start, it will give you a tranquil place to sit and rest your feet, beating the distinct lack of seating in all three stations. Stepping into the church from the mayhem of Euston and you step into an oasis of peace and serenity. After post-war renovations, the number of pews was reduced and so the church today accommodates far less than the 2,500 it was originally intended to hold. The pews today are made of English Oak wood and are the really old-fashioned type that can be closed off by a door to the central aisle creating an almost private compartment. Originally this is what the pews were - private compartments that could be rented for a year by wealthy parishioners who always had their own same space to sit together on Sundays. I guess this is where the tradition of 'pew hugging' started that has been the bane of church life ever since.

Despite the distinctly 'high church' feel to it, there is a sense as you look around that there is a real worshiping community there today. Take note of the notice boards and see the faces of today's members. Note the collection point for the food bank donations right at the entrance, the play area for the children, the Hymn books and Bibles. There is also a feeling that the church reaches out to the public around it, Christian or not. Music recitals regularly take place at lunch times as does a 45 minute communal Bible Study on Tuesdays. The impressive crypt, entered via the Caryatid portico also supports local artists and regularly hosts exhibitions.

The church also supports the student Christian Union at the nearby University College London and is the venue for their annual Christmas concert.

Poignantly, St. Pancras New Church also became the focal point of local and national grief and floral tributes to the victims of the 4th bomb (the 'Bus Bomb') to explode on 7/7 just yards away from the church entrance down Upper Woburn Place 10 years ago this year.

Especially adding to the cool, dark reverence of the interior imageare the beautiful stained glass windows, though these were not part of the original plan. The original church was built with clear glass windows in the days when the folk inside would have looked out onto the fields of the now extinct English county of Middlesex, the land of the Middle Saxons (as opposed to the West Saxons in Wessex, the East Saxons in Essex and the South Saxons in Sussex). Only Essex and Sussex now remain among England's shire counties. The stained glass windows visible today were gradually introduced after 1866, some 40 years after the consecration.

imageAs I looked around I was surprised to see on the walls a reference to my home borough of London way up on the north-west edge as being 'in the same county' at one time as the parish of St.Pancras. Again, this is a reference to Middlesex, which was subsumed into the hungry stomach of an ever ravenous and expanding London in 1965. Middlesex once stretched from here in Euston (or the borough of Camden as it is today) all the way north to the borders of Hertfordshire and my home town of Harrow.

Once you have had your time in the church and are feeling aimage little peckish (but still with plenty of time before your train) here's another little tip. Rather than head to the plastic shops and cafes of the stations, exit the church onto Upper Woburn Place, turn left and walk a few yards down the street. On your left you will soon find a small turning, which if you blink you will miss, called Woburn Walk. This tiny little tucked away oasis has a small clutch of cosy cafes for a lite bite and continental coffee, perfect in the Summer for dining al fresco and watching the world go by.

Community in Action

imageWhen the French get riled about something, they kill sheep in the streets of Paris. When we Brits get the hump….we tend to raise eyebrows and tut. OK, a crude and unfair stereotype but one aimed lovingly and jokingly at very good French friends who might read this.

Seems there’s a trend in my recent blogs. The last one was prompted by a social campaign I stumbled across in central London. This one follows on from a campaign nearer to home. In fact right outside my home.

This is the street where I live:

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I live in a middle class suburb of north-west London. Like everyone (well nearly everyone), we pay our local and national taxes, including for our roads and pavements (sidewalks). This is how the pavements look on our road today:

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And this is what they look like 17 seconds from my front door on the neighbouring road:

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Our pavements will most probably stay like they are until the Second Coming of Christ had it not been for a few residents I don’t know (who live down the other end of the street that I never wander through) decided to do something about it. I don’t even know how it started, whether a single incident like someone falling over and being injured was the last straw, but a group seems to have got together, decided on a plan of action, set up a neighbourhood communication infrastructure before canvassing each household on the street with a petition to get our local town Council to sort things.

The first my household heard of it was talk and rumour from neighbours – positive talk along the lines of what a good idea it was. Then we met some of the ladies who’d decided to take action as a petition was walked around. Turns out they got not far off 180 signatures on that petition. Not bad seeing as the house numbers on the street only go up to 115. A great endorsement for the action group that the neighbourhood had bought in.

imageThere then followed a hand-delivered residents newsletter with updates on the petition and other issues affecting us in the immediate locality they were concerned about. They set up a residents website via WordPress that only the residents have access to. A Twitter account Was set up too. It seems also that as they pulled this all together and started talking to the people they live among…they gained a reawakened sense of community spirit that they are continuing to try to tap into and encourage.

The primary goal of the action group has been met with stunning success. The group caught the attention of our local Council Representative who in turn petitioned the Town Council on our behalf. They decided in our favour and our decrepit pavements are to be fixed and we have that in writing from them.

The secondary goal – the one none of the action group predicted I’m sure – of re-establishing a sense of community and cohesiveness in this street that did onetime used to exist here, I think will be the toughest of any goal the group sets itself to achieve. They may not know that at onetime down this street, both ends of the road were blocked off to passers-by while the entire street partied for some Royal occasion long ago…or that the town Mayor came to visit the whole street to judge which house was decorated the best for that party, or that neighbours held ladders while neighbours attached flags and buntings to all homes. Ok, it was a one-off rare occasion but one I don’t feel would be possible to repeat these days for many reasons.

LOndonLondon is a very different place today. Europe’s largest metropolis is made up of islands of disparate communities and nationalities speaking over 300 languages between them. I have lived very many years in our street and kind of, sort of only know the inhabitants of no more than a dozen homes near me if that. Even then, I know very little of these locals than can be gleaned from a brief ‘hello’ in passing. I hope what this action group has started will bring some sort of connection between the 200 or so families who dwell here in this 21st Century with all its communicative possibilities. I for one will encourage them and seek to join in.

Coming back to the fact that this whole thing started at all and linking it back also to my previous blog on the battle going on on the South Bank of London, people will follow a worthwhile cause if one is presented to them in the right way by people prepared to take a risk. We are mostly followers and not leaders. It just takes people with guts, gumption and the will to make it happen to start the ball rolling.

Most of all, it’s heartening to know in this age of big government that it is still possible for communities to make a difference when engaged and united.

You can’t move history.

imageIf you have ever taken a walk along the South Bank of the River Thames in London strolling eastward from Westminster Bridge opposite the Houses of Parliament, you will come across some of the city’s most popular tourist attractions and cultural centres. The London Eye, London Dungeon, London Aquarium, Royal Festival Hall, the National Theatre. The place is totally buzzing with atmosphere both inside and outside, day and night.

The South Bank has long been a hotbed for creativity, innovation and the Arts. It is a Mecca for street performers and tourists love to gather around these guys and girls and be entertained or bemused for free. Just as your walk takes you near the National Theatre, you will come across the birthplace of some British creative history that is sadly, so I recently discovered, under threat.

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It’s called the ‘South Bank Undercroft Skatepark’ and it sits under the belly of the upper walkways between the theatres complex and the Royal Festival Hall. It’s open on one side but is otherwise a concrete alcove of no commercial value. To some, it’s an ugly, graffiti-daubed eyesore and hangout for London’s delinquent youth. To others, it’s a work of Art in itself created over decades at the hands and expressions of the city’s young people. Over time, virtually every spare inch of the otherwise depressingly drab cement walls and columns of the alcove have been covered in some of the most colourful and vibrant graffiti I have seen anywhere in any of my travels. Now I actually hate graffiti and the wanton defacing of property by people who don’t own it, but I’ve come to really like and admire the Undercroft, which I see as an organic work of art – an art that is both inanimate and animated. People walking the South Bank will stop at the Undercroft not only to photograph the muralled walls, but to watch the skills or attempts at skills of the young people who practice their skateboarding there and not just skates but bikes, scooters and rollerblades too.

The Undercroft is recognised as the birthplace of British Skateboarding back in the 1970’s when the craze took off here after (like many before and since) being imported from America. The youth of the time took  unofficial ownership of the drab concrete alcove with sloping floors to bounce off walls, cement slabs…anything they could use to create a new manouver and in doing so became themselves a visitor attraction. Today, new generations of skaters still practice their skills there, drawing gasps from small kids and parents alike as they fly by. Sadly, the kids of today may be the last generation to paint their mark on the piece of national history. That’s right; the property developers are moving in.

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A £multi-million redevelopment of the South Bank is waiting planning permission from Lambeth Council who run the borough of London the Undercroft sits in. The redevelopment promises to give a complete make-over to an area that let’s face it has looked pretty shabby and in need on modernisation for many years now. The developers promise to increase the amount of creative space given over to the Arts and for the development of young talent and in an era of austerity the fact that anything at all wants to be spent on supporting the Arts surely should be welcomed. Needless, to say that once details of the plan were revealed, which did not make any provision for the Undercroft in its present form, the Skateboarders of the UK united and took to the campaign trail to save the place. A petition is currently being canvassed to save the Undercroft that has so far raised over 50,000 signatures of support. Lobbying of politicians, celebrities and sportsmen and women is also taking place.

As the arguments for and against the South Bank redevelopment are aired in public, it was made known that there is no intention to rob the young skaters of today of their fun. There is a plan to create a brand new purpose-built skate park under the Hungerford Bridge further down the Thames. Billy+Bragg+1A surprising campaigner for the redevelopment is iconic musician, songwriter and broadcaster Billy Bragg, himself a symbol of youthful rebellion when I was growing up. He makes his case for the plans very well claiming that the creative interests of young people are at the heart of the new plans and you can read his own words here.   Interestingly, the next article I Googled while researching this reads “Billy Bragg is a knob. Ignore him and help save the Southbank Undercroft” and you also read all about that here.
Having spent some thought on the arguments both ways over this piece of London I really like, my feeling is that Mr Bragg and the supporters of the South Bank redevelopment are missing the point. The issue here is not just about a makeover that will hopefully better hone the skills and talents of the young (not to mention also increasing the commercial revenues generated in this highly popular stretch of London real estate). It’s about Art and History, both inextricably linked at the Undercroft. To simply do away with history in the name of progress and modernisation is never to have learned anything from history at all. It also reveals a fascinating irony that the (presumably) older people who have drawn up the new plans to boost South Bank’s famed creativity show very little creative talent themselves: surely there is a way of achieving the commendable new goals and still preserve the History too? I reckon if this debate were taking place in, say, Paris, Berlin or New York…a way would be found.

 

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There has been some final intense lobbying now in the last few days before Lambeth Council make their decision to grant planning permission or not and just very recently the skaters received the backing of two powerful an unexpected allies – their neighbours in the Royal Festival Hall and English Heritage. Both have joined forces with the skaters’ campaign to have the Undercroft listed as a heritage site, something that would severely damage the redevelopment bid though not scupper it.

Time will tell, I guess, but while the skaters were still campaigning as I walked past them last week I added my name and support beneath their campaign slogan. After all they’re bloody well right. You can’t move history.

Online petition here.

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London to quit the UK?

LOndonTonight’s Comment page in the London Evening Standard caught my eye:  “There’s an easy solution to Britain in Europe”, writes columnist Simon Jenkins. “Let the rest of Britain stay but let London leave.  The great metropolis has never been a true partner to the other capitals of Europe.  It does not walk arm in arm with Paris, Brussels, Berlin or Rome.   It flirts with those it does business with, New York, Tokyo and Shanghai. For the rest of Britain, Europe is a commercial opportunity, a market for its goods and services.  For London it is a weekend break”.

It’s not often that an opening paragraph of any article in the Standard grabs my attention but this one did most likely because it caught my mood of the moment and that mood is twofold: first, not to wait for the Scots to drive us all to Prozac with another two years of tedious bleating for a freedom they already have (but apparently haven’t got the brain cells to recognise) but boot them out early, boycott the Glasgow 2015 Big Sports Day – er I mean Commonwealth Games – and let the rest of us get on with it. Second, a mood of relishing the chance right now if I could have it of sticking two fat fingers up at Europe, giving Prime Minister Cameron a big slap round the chops and voting for the UK to quit the EU.

But to have London tell both Europe AND the rest of the UK to go bollox? Now there’s a novel thought.  Well, we could after all.  London is the 5th largest urban economy in the world after Tokyo, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago estimated at £361 billion.  London’s GDP is larger than the combined economies of Belgium, Sweden and Switzerland.  When the world comes to visit,  to shop in and be entertained in the UK we all know that it’s really London they are coming to see with maybe the odd day out to, well, whatever exists outside the M25.  We have two of the world’s busiest airports serving us – more airports for this one city than for some whole countries, a major port, the world’s premier financial center, a plethora of sports teams and stadia, a world leading arts and entertainment capital, music industry hub, one of the most exciting culinary and fashion capitals on the planet,  global news and communications hubs and 8 million people to service them all.

Of course it wouldn’t/couldn’t happen but in some ways London has already left the UK.  There is no other city like it in this country I have visited or in any other for that matter.  The world lives here, and no that’s no indication of any subliminal UKIP tendencies – that is simply what makes us such a unique city. We are a world class international city, a capital of business and finance with as much impact on the citizens of Hong Kong and Singapore as on those of Spalding and Wigan. Three hundred languages are spoken in the city. More French people live here than in many a small to mid sized Frankish city. Half all Australia lives here on two year house swaps with British counterparts. Just yesterday when I used the touch screen to check in to my local GP surgery for an appointment with the Doctor I was given the option of selecting from 10 languages to do so and nowadays I carry a Polish phrase book with me just in case I get into difficulties on the Tube.   I do love London but I only feel I’m back in the UK when I’ve travelled just that far enough north of Watford.

No, I think London and the UK are stuck with each other for the foreseeable future though it might just be nice if one day, just once, we over-taxed, over-stressed, over-crowded over dumped on Londoners were given a real opportunity to actually say bollox to the rest.

 

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More about where I live…

I’ve previously blogged about Harrow, where I live, on the north-west corner of the sprawling mass that is London.  The famous boys school on top of the hill is legendary for the great and the good who have been educated there. I also discovered while researching for that blog that Harrow-on-the-Hill was where the UK’s first fatal road traffic accident occurred.  Well, it seems that Harrow also has another unhappy claim to fame that I barely knew about: the scene of the UK’s 2nd worst ever passenger rail disaster.

At 08.19 on this day in 1952, no less that three passenger trains collided at Harrow and Wealdstone station from where I used to regularly commute into London Euston station. A local commuter train heading south into Euston from Tring was stationary at the platform when a high-speed sleeper express travelling at 50-60mph coming down on the same line from Perth in Scotland ploughed into the back of it.  The explosive collision not only brought down the overhead walkway bridge for foot passengers to cross over to the other platforms, but it got strewn across the north-bound rail tracks…just as the London-Liverpool express, also travelling at 50mph was heading in the opposite direction.

A total of 112 people were killed that day. The 9-coach long commuter service bore the brunt with 64 fatalities, 23 perished on the 11-coach southbound express and 7 in the 15-coach Liverpool express. A further 14 deaths are thought to have occurred among passengers on the platforms or walking across the bridge.

The severity of the crash was such that of the 16 rail cars destroyed that day, 13 of them were compressed into an area 41m long, 16m and 9.1m high.

The cause of the disaster was eventually attributed to the driver of the southbound express and is officially recorded as ‘SPAD’ – ‘signal passed at danger’.  There had been reports of patchy fog that day around the area where the crucial warning signal had apparently been ignored was but it was not thought that visibility was that poor. To this day no one knows why the driver and fireman of the Perth express passed the danger signal as both were killed in the crash. This accident and one at Lewisham shortly after sped up the introduction of AWS (Automatic Warning Systems) on trains throughout the UK.

While the Harrow & Wealdstone disaster may seem like the rail equivalent of the Tenerife double jumbo air crash in its mind-numbing scale, it may have slipped by you as it did me that it was the UK’s second biggest rail crash.  The biggest one took place in May 1915 near Gretna Green at a place called Quintinshill.  5 trains were involved in that one claiming 230 lives, many of them WW1 troops in transit with 240 injuries.  Cause of that one was put down to signal failure.

So there’s a cheery thought for you if you are reading this on your daily commute this Monday morning but let’s think on.  While we all moan about public transport from time to time it took the lives of those killed on this day 60 years ago to make our journeys that little bit safer.