Thursday, October 10, 2013

London Town

London has always held a certain magic for me. As a teenager in the 1970s I was occasionally allowed to come to the great city with my big brother. We would walk the streets fascinated by how busy it was compared with our home stomping ground in Poole and Bournemouth.

I recall going with him to the UK’s first branch of MacDonald’s, on Oxford Street, and experiencing the buzz of the West End and Soho for the first time.
On the way in on the train, you would pass Battersea Power Station. I was stunned by how a city could put a big dirty power station in its midst and by the simultaneous beauty and ugliness of it.

My love affair with London continued into the 1980s. I remember taking my first proper girlfriend, a Hull lass called Belinda, to the South Bank and Covent Garden in 1982. The flash stores, the cheery markets and daring buskers all seemed all alien yet wondrous to us.

Later, I stayed with another friend in a flat in the East End, on the cusk of the City of London and went clubbing to the Fridge, in Brixton.  In the mid-1980s there were many riotous nights around London Bridge with my mates at The Stage newspaper.

In 1988, I moved to London to start work on Fleet Street and lived in Finsbury Park, Angel and Stoke Newington where I had a house until 2006. I loved it; London in the 1980s was so raw and thrilling.  
Much as I enjoy Lewes and Brighton and Hove, there is nothing like being in London. Belgravia during the day is a great place to be and, occasionally, I am able to stay up in town and enjoy the sites.

Recently, I read in the Evening Standard that Battersea Power Station was to be opened for a weekend, as part of the Open Houses event, for the last time before its redevelopment.
So, the following Saturday, we decided to have a look. Unfortunately, the publicity had worked rather too well. When we passed the Power Station on the train up from Brighton, we were astonished to see what looked like a throng of thousands of people outside.

At Victoria Station, all the trains there had been cancelled because of a death on the line (yet another suicide on the railways), and by the time we got to Battersea Power Station on the Tube, the organisers had closed it early because of the crowds. Shouty security guards turned us away. Thanks, guys!
Instead we walked along the short River path there (quite interesting, particularly the enormous houseboat just under an ugly apartments development) and then returned to Victoria to check out some embassies on Belgrave Square.

The Italians, Romanians and Argentine diplomats and educationalists were very hospitable and suitably amazed that I was one of their neighbours on Belgrave Square, albeit only as a humble office worker.

We particularly liked the Argentinean Embassy which is especially spacious being on a corner of the Square and has the most wonderful fittings and paintings. Very friendly people, too! I would love to visit Argentina.
A week later, I went on a river cruise on The Thames. If you get the chance, it is a great thing to do. I have worked beside or near The Thames on at least three occasions: at Blackfriars Bridge for Express Newspapers from 1989-95; at Canary Wharf for the Sunday Telegraph from 1995-97, and at Eccleston Square for the Catholic Bishops of England & Wales from 2002-04. In each of these jobs, I have greatly enjoyed the proximity to Father Thames.
Even working for the bishops, I would often walk across the bridge to Battersea Park, accompanied on occasions by a Jesuit priest friend, Peter Scally – a fine chap now running a parish in Edinburgh.

The event I attended a few weeks ago involved a trip up the Shard followed by the river cruise. It was fabulous. To be frank, the Shard was built without me really paying it any mind. To me it was just another modern building. I did not know what the fuss was about.

However, when you are accelerated upwards from ground level to the 33rd floor in around 30 seconds and then from the 33rd floor the 69th in even less time, you realise it is something special.

At the 69th you can walk up a couple more floors and actually be outside way above the other buildings of the great city.

When I visited, it was a quintessentially sunny, clear autumnal day. You could see for miles and miles and miles. It was great to look down on Canary Wharf, the River a sinuous snake beneath you. The air at that height is wonderfully cool and fresh – really superb.
There is also a bar halfway up the Shard, although you have to return to ground level and re-enter the building by a different door. It has great drinks (and slow service) and a great outlook, including the finest view from a gent’s in London!

For the cruise, we set sail from Tower Bridge and chugged upstream to Battersea. On deck it was wonderfully clear and beautiful in the sunning sun, sipping a glass of wine and enjoying a canapé or two.
Relaxing in London always brings such memories: previous river trips, walks in Clissold Park, Sunday service at St. Bride’s in Fleet Street where my youngest was christened, life in Islington, Stoke Newington, Blackfriar’s, Docklands.  So many happy and sad memories, so much water under the bridge. . .
The next day I visited a lovely old church at Tower Bridge and lit two candles. It is a remarkable place. 

A little piece of seafaring history where Samuel Pepys used to worship. In a book beside a ship’s bell, the names of those who have been lost at sea are written in a classical script. Very special.

Seeing it for the first time rounded off a great couple of days in my world-favourite capital city.

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Blogger Steerforth said...

I think the Shard is wonderful - almost as good as flying over London. But nobody told me that there was a bar - a lost opportunity!

Thursday, 10 October, 2013  

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