David Secombe: Thirty years ago, I accepted an assignment to illustrate a book of ‘London Walks’; I might have approached this task with more enthusiasm if I hadn’t known that I was offered the brief because the publisher didn’t have the money to pay the author’s preferred photographer. I lost my own copy of the finished item long ago, but recently came across one whilst helping my girlfriend clear an elderly aunt’s house. Looking at it now, it’s obvious that it was a formative experience for me, and that my photos were terrible. In an attempt to expiate former sins, this is the first of two posts revisiting the territory in a bid to see if a grizzled hack can improve upon a callow youth.
On a wet evening last week, I traced the steps of the ‘Riverine Strand’ walk in the company of TLC contributor and bad wine specialist CJ of the Sediment blog. We met outside Gordon’s Wine bar at the bottom of Villiers Street, both of us soaked through and longing for a glass of anything a notch above foul. Gordon’s advertises itself as ‘London’s oldest wine bar’, and it remains an atmospheric place to drink, although it has become more of a corporate playground in recent years. On this occasion our way to the bar was barred by thronging suits, which is why this piece lacks a picture of the vaulted cellar which is Gordon’s USP. We moved on …
York Watergate. © David Secombe 2014
Opposite Gordon’s is a surviving fragment of the lost, pre-Embankment riverside landscape that once constituted this area: York Watergate, landing for York House, a palazzo which bordered the river for over 500 years. York House’s final, broke, owner, George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham, flogged it to developers for thirty grand. As Wikipedia gelidly states: ‘He made it a condition of the sale that his name and full title should be commemorated by George Street, Villiers Street, Duke Street, Of Alley, and Buckingham Street. Some of these streets are extant …’. For CJ’s benefit I pointed out that Samuel Pepys lived in a couple of houses on Buckingham Street, and that he also lived in the building where Gordon’s is now. CJ observed that it was still raining.
Lower Robert Street, Adelphi. © David Secombe 2014.
Lower Robert Street is an odd, subterranean thoroughfare that runs through what was once the undercroft of Adelphi Terrace, the centrepiece of the Adam Brothers’ Adelphi development. From The Encyclopedia of London:
In 1867 the Adelphi vaults were ‘in part occupied as wine cellars and coal wharves, their grim vastness, a reminder of the Etruscan Cloaca of old Rome’. Here, according to Tombs, ‘the most abandoned characters have often passed the night, nestling upon foul straw; and many a street thief escaped from his pursuers in these dismal haunts before the introduction of gaslight and a vigilant police’.
Dickens has David Copperfield wandering through this vanished maze, ‘a mysterious place with those dark arches’, which we can assume was an autobiographical reference. When I visited Lower Robert Street in the ’80s, for the purpose of illustrating the guidebook, it was still possible to see a dark courtyard beyond an iron gate: the basement of an Adam townhouse, seen from the POV of Victorian low-life … but that gate is bricked up now. (I dilated upon this factoid to an increasingly glazed CJ as drops of rainwater fell from his rimless spectacles.)
Above, the Adam houses reportedly were – as the houses that remain still are – a toy-town vision of elegance and grace. Of the Adelphi Terrace, E.V.Lucas wrote in 1916: ‘The Adelphi is still a favourite abode of men of letters, for it is central yet retired, and the brothers Adam planned rooms of peculiar comfort’. David Garrick, Richard D’Oyly Carte, Bernard Shaw, Thomas Hardy, all lived there, making it a sort of riverside version of The Albany.
Adelphi Terrace was demolished by London County Council in 1936 and replaced by Collcutt and Hemp’s vast Deco block. The Adams’ Adelphi was the first neoclassical building in London, whereas Collcutt and Hemp’s edifice – grotesquely named ‘Adelphi’ – has been described by Ed Glinert (in The London Compendium) as ‘London’s most authentic example of totalitarian 1930s architecture’. Like Bush House at the other end of the Strand, it is a permanent reminder of loss, of a wrong inflicted upon the city. (NB: we are currently working on a survey of Boris Johnson’s skyscraper-nurturing programme.) In 1951, London County Council installed a plaque on one of the pillars of the ‘new’ Adelphi to commemorate the one they had connived to destroy. (The photo at the top of this post is of the Adam house which remains on Robert Street, facing Collcutt and Hemp, home to the Royal Society of Arts.)
Savoy Way. © David Secombe 2014
At this point, CJ wanly suggested going for a drink at the Savoy; but I reminded him that the last time we did that was five years ago, when both of us had money. Instead, we contented ourselves with a cursory inspection of the hotel’s rear quarters, a paragon of rationality, clad in the glazed tiles the Victorians reserved for only the filthiest urban environments.
At Oscar Wilde’s first trial, the following exchange took place between prosecution witness Charles Parker and prosecutor Charles Gill:
PARKER: Subsequently Wilde said to me. ‘This is the boy for me! Will you go to the Savoy Hotel with me?’ I consented, and Wilde drove me in a cab to the hotel. Only he and I went, leaving my brother and Taylor behind. At the Savoy we went first to Wilde’s sitting room on the second floor.
GILL: More drink was offered you there?
PARKER: Yes, we had liqueurs. Wilde then asked me to go into his bedroom with him.
(In an early draft of The Importance of Being Earnest, a solicitor arrives to remove Algernon to Holloway Prison for non-payment of restaurant bills at the Savoy, whereupon Algie retorts: ‘I am not going to be imprisoned in the suburbs for dining in the West End. It is ridiculous.’ Prior to his first trial, Wilde found himself held on remand at Holloway.)
It is tempting to imagine Oscar and Bosie hustling rent boys past the laundry bins and crates of vegetables on Savoy Way. CJ wondered whose laundry the gent in the photo might be carrying.
Savoy Chapel, Savoy Lane. © David Secombe 2014.
Adjacent to the Savoy stands one of those anomalous bits of medieval London marooned amongst anonymous offices. Savoy Palace, a vast 13th Century manor, once sprawled across the foreshore here; the Palace was entirely destroyed during the Peasants’ Revolt but the chapel was later rebuilt as part of Henry VII’s Savoy Hospital, of which it is now the only survivor. I don’t know whether Oscar and Bosie ever came here to ‘cool [their] hands in the grey twilight of Gothic things’, but this happens to be the spot where another Savoy resident, the newly-electric Bob Dylan, telegraphed Subterranean Homesick Blues for D.A. Pennebaker’s camera, as Allen Ginsberg and Tom Wilson loitered meaningfully in the background.
CJ and I emerged from Savoy Lane onto the Strand whereupon it started raining again, so we redoubled our efforts to find a sane place to drink. Dodging umbrellas and puddles by the corner of Waterloo Bridge, we chanced to see Peter Ackroyd alight elegantly from a cab and dive into a Tesco Express. We thought of waiting to see what the biographer of London would do when he emerged, entertaining the wistful hope that he might pop into Maplin’s for some fuses or a remote-controlled helicopter … but my boot was leaking, so we went to the Lamb and Flag, where we stood outside and drank our beers in the rain.
© David Secombe … for The London Column.
Camden Road. © David Secombe 1987.
From London The Biography by Peter Ackroyd, 2000:
Whole areas can in their turn seem woeful or haunted. Arthur Machen had a strange fascination with the streets north of Gray’s Inn Road – Frederick Street, Percy Street, Lloyd Baker Square – and those in which Camden Town melts into Holloway. They are not grand or imposing; nor are they squalid or desolate. Instead they seem to contain the grey soul of London, that slightly smoky and dingy quality which has hovered over the city for many hundreds of years. He observed ‘those worn and hallowed doorsteps’, even more worn and hallowed now, and ‘I see them signed with tears and desires, agony and lamentations’. London has always been the abode of strange and solitary people who close their doors upon their own secrets in the middle of the populous city; it has always been the home of ‘lodgings’, where the shabby and the transient can find a small room with a stained table and a narrow bed.
In the midst of our jingoistic Olympic summer, I thought it might refreshing to explore the aspect of London so eloquently evoked by Peter Ackroyd in the passage above. A city of silent yet inhabited houses, anonymous windswept streets, overgrown front lawns, strange objects on the back seats of abandoned cars, forbidding municipal playgrounds, etc. (This is essentially the same territory explored by Geoffrey Fletcher in The London Nobody Knows, and as the last series on The London Column was a revisiting of Fletcher’s book, this one may be seen as a continuation of the same theme.) ‘London Gothic’ is becoming increasingly rare; most of the streets that Arthur Machen thought of as woeful are now exemplars of prosperous gentrification. London is a cleaner, neater place: even King’s Cross is a landscaped zone now. The photo above was taken a quarter of a century ago, and Holloway has come up in the world since then. The specific, shabby London charm that Machen and Ackroyd describe may still be found, but one has to look harder. As a small boy visiting the city from the suburbs, I was amazed by the soft enveloping greyness which made the occasional bursts of colour all the more striking. That quiet visual texture is vanishing, when even municipal housing wears screaming day-glo colours, as 1960s & 70s blocks are clad in blue, yellow, or turquoise panels. London wears its dread in brighter shades these days.
… for The London Column.
St. Anne’s, Limehouse. Photo © David Secombe 2010.
From The London Nobody Knows, Geoffrey Fletcher, 1962:
St. Anne’s, Limehouse, was built by Hawksmoor, 1712-30, one of his three churches in the East End which alone make a worthwhile pilgrimage: the other two are St. George in the East and Christ Church, Spitalfields. All were begun within a few years of each other. As early as the 1730s, overcrowding had become a characteristic of the East End, a process accelerated in the early 19th century by the building of the docks between 1800 and 1830, the demand for unskilled labour, and the arrival of Jews and other refugees from Eastern Europe. These three churches were built as necessities, but there is nothing utilitarian about them. Their originality continues to surprise us. Hawksmoor’s architecture, imbued with Baroque rhythms, is massive yet solid, like Johnson’s prose. Characteristic of how little we really value them is the fact that, at time of writing, Christ Church, Spitalfields, is under threat of demolition, though thousands of pounds are uselessly thrown away in every conceivable direction.
Christ Church, Spitalfields, was not demolished and has in recent years been the beneficiary of grants to restore the fabric of the building after decades of neglect. Hawksmoor’s six London churches have experienced a revival in general, and have become talismans for those who seek to pursue a hidden or mystical history of the city. Peter Ackroyd’s 1985 novel Hawksmoor elaborates upon ideas proposed by Ian Sinclair that Hawksmoor’s churches map an Eye of Horus upon the capital, whilst Alan Moore’s graphic novel From Hell links the Jack the Ripper murders to the looming presence of Christ Church over Whitechapel. Psychogeography aside, the massiveness and intensity of Hawksmoor’s designs have a slightly forbidding quality– and his monumental East End churches must have appeared anomalous and strange to those living in the surrounding Georgian and Victorian slums. In the 21st century, however, Christ Church looks anomalous for a different reason: the deadly corporatised make-over of Spitalfields market has transformed the area into Covent Garden East, and Hawksmoor’s magnificent creation now looms over a retail theme park safe for hipsters and their friends.
… for The London Column.