Monday, 28 September 2015

St Pancras to Pimlico Gardens Part 4

I seldom find urban parks interesting. St James Park doesn’t particularly intrigue me but it’s a well maintained green space and very welcome in the summer. It has fostered a couple of zoological oddities: firstly the tameness of the grey squirrels. I watch as tourists feed them and end up with the mammals actually boarding them. Facial expressions suddenly change from wonder to terror as they realise Europe’s largest rodent and its incisors is currently foraging around their bodies in search of juicy protuberances. Secondly, there was a macabre episode involving the lake’s pelicans a few years ago – one of the them started eating feral pigeons alive by flipping them in its enormous canvass bill and throwing it straight down the gullet as they would a fish. It was well documented by the local press.

If you keep the lake to your right and proceed at an angle of roughly 2 o clock, a path leads you directly towards cockpit steps. They act as a little gateway to the backstreets of Victoria. The road running along the southern border of St James Park is called Birdcage Walk. Cross over and head towards a gap in the buildings before you where there’s a railing. It winds around to a small curving staircase called cockpit steps. When I first found this cute cut-through I assumed the cockpit had a 2nd World War RAF connotation as Churchill’s war room & bunker is very close by. Also, the brickwork in the walls above the steps doesn’t seem that old. The steps actually goes back to the 18th century - they were the entrance to the Royal cockfighting pit. Cock fighting pits weren’t generally deemed  posh but this one was an exception and was frequented by the well-heeled. The stairs also have a rather uninspiring headless ghost story attached to them from 1804 when the apparition was seen by Coldstream guards. A driver who wrapped his car around a lamppost close by in 1972 also claimed a woman in a red dress suddenly appeared before his car. I suppose it’s just faith that links the two. Why would a headless female ghost and a woman in a red dress be the same thing? The only factor they have in common is general geography. Once you’ve climbed the steps and come out onto Dartmouth Street, you’ve entered a new world: Victoria.




I have a strong connection with Victoria as I spend so much of my working life driving around it for the local council. You could also throw in Pimlico and Millbank - the districts all merge into one for me. It’s an odd area frequented by civil servants and French buildings. Mansard roofs are everywhere around Victoria Station yet they’re a Parisian staple. A lot of the pubs and businesses shut at the weekend or at least on the Sunday like they do in the square mile though in both cases, this is rapidly changing. Apart from the Mansard roofs, this area has beautiful bespoke pub signs in abundance. The monopoly seems to be with the Taylor Walker pub company but also Nicholsons - both well  represented across London.





Taylor Walker pubs are good at preserving pubs as buildings but don’t do much for the advancement of good beer. They’ve had cask ale on for a long time but it rarely strays from Doom Bar, London Pride, Youngs etc - all beers that can be nice enough in good condition. It changes (as does the condition of the beer) from pub to pub. CAMRA members can get 10% off  pint but I don’t often go into them. I have been both appalled and pleasantly surprised. The Two Chairmen was the last Taylor Walker pub I visited about 3 months ago and Lazarus from the newly formed Truman’s Brewery was in good form. The 3-dimensional hanging signs for the following Taylor Walker pubs are amazing: The Two Chairmen, The Bag O’ Nails, The Adam & Eve, The White Swan and The Albert. The most beautiful used to be The Greencoat Boy but sadly this has been replaced with a more regular flat sign. 
The Nicholson’s pub chain has a much greater variety and turnover of cask ale and regularly have beer festivals on. Again, they preserve pubs well as gorgeous buildings with all the urban architectural idioms that entails. Many have a similar feel to theatres. With regards to beautiful pub signs around here, Nicholson’s hold their own with The Feathers and St Georges Tavern. 
Another candidate I’d add is the weird and wonderful pub The Speaker. They don’t make signs that that anymore. The outside of The Speaker is also a mine of local parliamentary history. It’s run by Enterprise Inns.



55 Broadway was one of the most ambitious building projects in London yet you barely notice it when walking around it. It’s a mountain. How does it remain hidden? Under it is St James Park Tube Station. 55 Broadway was built in 1929 and housed the headquarters of the Underground Electric Railways Company of London (UERL). This was a forerunner to the London Underground we know now. The grey brut concrete that seems to be perpetually weeping causes the walker to simply walk on. You’d never know that it was for a while the tallest office building in the capital. One reason for this is it’s now dwarfed by the buildings that have gone up around it. Just a block away on Victoria Street, the rear of every building looks down on it so in this crowded gallery its might is completely lost. Standing alone (as illustrations and the original designs by Charles Holden demonstrate), the building is solid and imposing. It’s in cruciform shape – something else that’s missed from the street and it tapers up in steps towards a broad hulking clock tower. An underground flag flies from it - possibly the highest in London. This building is also cowed in brute strength (pun intended) by the Ministry of justice on Petty France. Its menace and top heaviness almost lead you to throw yourselves to the ground in subjugation and self pollution. The slab-like aspect of its walls and muscular overhang put me in mind of the bomb-proof Flakturm in Berlin that survived the war. The irony is that the best views of 55 Broadway are from the buildings that tower over it – the only aspect which will afford you its full shape. How do you hide a mountain? In a mountain range. 

North Wind by Eric Gill


There is something about it which does cause you to do a double take. As ever, you need to look up to see it. There is a frieze of an adult with a child which is unsettling. The infant’s head seems to be turned away from the viewer but the genitals (believe me it’s a boy!) are pointing outwards. Originally, this unintended water spout was even longer – 1 and a half inches to be exact because that’s how much was chipped off to quell a public outcry when the building was first unveiled. The artwork in question is called Day and Night by Jacob Epstein and is part of a series of carvings by various sculptors including Eric Gill – a man who conducted sexual experiments on his sitting models, his sister, his children and even his own dog. With a CV like that his own contributions here  – South Wind and North Wind - are quite restrained and in any case a bit too distant from ground level. 
Virtually opposite 55 Broadway  is the iconic revolving sign of New Scotland Yard. I’ve snuck surreptitiously behind newsreaders as they do a piece to camera many times. At the bottom of Broadway I cross Victoria Street and enter Strutton Grounds. 
There is a pub on this cobbled pedestrian street that has a fantastic story to tell: It’s where The Goon Show was first recorded. It’s another Taylor Walker venue but they agreed to change the name almost to what it had been in the 1950’s. It was known then as The Grafton or Grafton’s. It changed to The Strutton Arms. In 2011 a recording was made to celebrate the 60th anniversary of The Goon Show. It featured Jeffrey Holland of Hi-De-Hi as well as Harry Secombe’s son. Now it’s been renamed The Grafton Arms to pay homage to this piece of radio history. 

Plaque on the renamed Grafton Arms


We now go south, turn right onto Greatcoat Place and then 2nd left around the mini roundabout onto Rochester Row. Vauxhall Bridge Road flows east to west at the bottom. Cross over again and go under George Eliot House. There’s a caged children’s playground on your left. Come out on Tachbrook Street and turn left. After a couple of hundred metres you’ll find the pub that changed the way London drinks beer - The Cask & Kitchen.
Red Willow Brewery Feckless Best Bitter (cask 4.1)
Dark bronze with a light brown spittle. The colour is actually gorgeous. It reminds me of polished mahogany. It's a light sweet nutty first taste. Very gentle body -  it's quite milky. Mild bark dimension. Easily quaffable. The aftertaste is sweet and nutty too.

Northern Monk Brewery Black IPA (keg 6.7)
Black and impervious to the light. It has a milky coffee head and the aroma is of blackjacks and liquorice. It's quite easy drinking. The carbonation gives it levity. The liquorice continues on the palate. It's not a complex beer. The mid-high ABV lends it a stickiness.

There are two more sculptures/statues to see before we get to Pimlico Gardens: In my opinion, the awful and the obscure. Leave The Cask and Kitchen, turn left and a few hundred yards away is the entrance to Moreton Street. Amble down to the bottom towards the junction of Vauxhall Bridge Road for a quick little detour. 

Roller Skate Sculpture is by Andre Wallace. It’s a girl on roller skates travelling across a bench with the g-force of the motion presumably making her hair flare out behind her. It looks awkward to me and bears no connection to anything. A lot of his sculptures have a theme of human faces and bodies being part of other forms – sometimes hatching out that can be quite captivating. He also does two person sculptures where he captures the relationship well like two women gossiping or a motorcyclist with a passenger clinging to the back. 


Answers on a postcard....


Get back onto Tachbrook Street, turn left and cross Rampayne Street to find Pimlico underground station. Wander around it and you’ll find the last installation.This sculpture brings the end of this journey neatly back to the start as, like the statue of Blake in the gardens of The British Library, it’s by Eduardo Paolozzi. This one has the sculptor’s trademark machina theme and also has a purpose – it’s an air vent for Pimlico underground station. The decoration looks a bit like an aerial view of a military installation. There’s  also a giant grasshopper amongst the shapes. Whatever the thinking behind this 1982 piece of art, it’s neat and charming as well as practical.


Beware the giant acrididae


I cross the road over Lupus Street and go down Aylesford Street towards Grosvenor Road. Grosvenor Road is a panoramic road and cycle highway that skirts the north bank of the Thames. It affords amazing views of Battersea Power Station to the west and leads up to the palace of Westminster. I go through the small public space of Pimlico Gardens and follow the shore wall until I can perch on it to eat chunks of cooked bacon. 

I love coming down here and if you shut your eyes you could believe you’re out of the capital and at a small quayside in Kent. I hear the wing splashes of a cormorant taking off from the surface of the Thames and the clanking of shroud on mast. With eyes open, though. It’s back to science fiction. The newly built shining skyscrapers and Chelsea & Westminster Hospital flank the southern wall across the lazy silver ribbon. I look directly down at the narrow strip of shore. Now there are crowds of Feral Pigeons and carrion crows scavenging on the mud with more cautious pied wagtails wagging at the bank edges. Elsewhere in Britain there’d be oystercatchers, common sandpipers and redshank. The river Tyburn spills out into the Thames here, finally exposed from its descent down through Hampstead and Swiss Cottage, under Regents Park through Marylebone, the West End and coursing under St James Park and Pimlico. It trickles out anaemically. In another age there would’ve been the mudlarks and toshers - often young boys whose trade was to scavenge around in the tidal mud or patrol the city’s sewers. Today the human and trade traffic isn’t even a memory but a scene from another world. The city that led the world in brewing, however, is no longer just a chapter in history but a nascent second coming.