Wednesday, 2 July 2008

Towers of London

When in London, look up. The city is a chronological onion, with layers of history covered by subsequent layers of history covered my modern tat. Look at it at ground level and all you see are T-shirt vendors, fast food outlets, bus stops, rucksacked crowds, free newspaper distributors and shoe shops. Look up and you can see London in its majesty. Right: The Rising Sun pub on Tottenham Court Road. 'What flights of Victorian fancy', wrote Sir John Betjeman (my favourite poet); this ornate pub frontage was built in 1897. The pub window today advertises Czech and Belgian beers to passers-by. London's become Europe, but Queen Victoria's Empire is still visible, a few floors up.

London's Underground is also a multi-layered spectacle. From the early 'cut-and-cover' lines (Metropolitan - the world's first underground railway, 1863), through the early deep tube lines, privately built and operated before being nationalised, the 1930s extentions into the far suburbs, to the latest projects - the Jubilee Line, Docklands Light Railway, the whole system is aesthetically held together by corporate design of the highest order. Left: Goodge Street Station (Northern Line) with its red tiled arched facade. The station dates back to 1907; the flats above it were built later (compare to this photo from 1925). London is certainly a city shaped by the railways running through it, under it and into it.

Sir John Betjeman is often credited as the man who saved St Pancras from the fate that befell Euston Station; a great Victorian terminus that 1960s developers tore down and replaced with rubbish. St Pancras survived that ignominy and has since been reborn as the rail gateway to Europe. From St Pancras one can catch trains to Paris, Brussels, and yes, Luton Airport (more on this anon). Above: The facade of the Midlands Grand Hotel, undergoing refurbishment. Thank God it's still here. This is the essence of Victorian London, the view of Sir John's "pigeon-haunted turrets" from the Pentonville Road in John O'Connor's 1884 painting is one that's stayed with me since childhood.

A propos of Sir John; while en route from Luton Airport via St Pancras for a meeting at the Polish Embassy on Monday morning, I passed this blackboard advertising the Betjeman Arms pub on the station premises. Time prevented a visit, but surely, Sir John, who "loathed beer and liked wine", and never a fan of corporate pubs, would not have approved.

And what of Euston? All that's left is the pair of entrance gates, reminescent of Warsaw's Rogatki. The famous old arch was torn down in an act of mindless architectural vandalism. Hopefully, when the ghastly 1960s replacement is itself replaced, the Euston Arch will return. If you click to enlarge, you'll see the destinations of the London and North West Railway carved into the panels on the corners.

Two more London towers; one is BT Tower (left), formerly Telecom Tower, originally the Post Office (GPO) Tower. This building was opened in the late 1960s; I visited it as a schoolboy shortly after it opened, and a great impression it made on me too. Much later (in 1994), I attended a press conference given by British Telecom about a new technology that would revolutionise the then-nascent Internet - the World-Wide Web (www), driven by hyper-text mark-up language (HTML). How the world has changed as a result.

And finally, below, the building where I worked for 16 years before leaving London for Warsaw - Centre Point. Infamous for being left empty as a wrongly-timed speculation while homelessness was rising dramatically, the tower was designed by Sir Richard Seiffert (yes, he also did the 1960s Euston development) for a property tycoon called Harry Hyams. In the end, the squatters were moved out, the CBI moved in, and a year later, I was working on the ninth floor.

This time last year:
Cockchafers out in force
High summer in Jeziorki
Stormy night
Wild deer in Las Kabacki forest

No comments: