You can find the map for today’s 7.26-mile walk here. 25 days until the Congestion Zone Ends Party! Follow on Twitter for more updates.
London is not all pretty and sparkly and shiny and gorgeous. There are a lot of back roads and smelly alleys. There are lots of utilitarian, administrative buildings lacking embellishment or decoration of any kind. There are lots of service roads. There are lots of loading docks. Things get pretty messy and stinky in some spots. No neighbourhood is exempt. Even in the prettiest places, there are plenty of gross parts.
So many of these walks have been a mix of really ugly and absolutely stunning. When I have a walk where it feels like everything is ugly (where I spend most of the time wishing I was somewhere else or covering my nose to avoid the smells) I like to tell myself the contrasts are what make London such an interesting place. It would be boring if everything were the same, right? Somehow it makes me feel better thinking that if one part can be so unattractive, surely a really pretty part must be waiting just around the corner (don’t call me Shirley).
It doesn’t always happen but, luckily for me, that philosophy worked out today.
The Ugly Stuff
On Day 49 I talked about how much I love boy things like straight razors and cufflinks. The majority of today felt like I was in another male-dominated world, but it wasn’t the right kind of man for me. It was police, military and lawyers. I know women here too, but a long history of a male majority has given these institutions a notable lack of flair.
Why do they all have to be so grey and uninviting?
The three worst offenders were New Scotland Yard, the Ministry of Justice and the Wellington Barracks.
Here is our fist ugly building: the New Scotland Yard.
As a foreigner, the whole Scotland Yard thing has always confused me. I thought it was specific branch of a UK police force whose officers smoke pipes and solve mysteries. Not so. It is just a nickname for the Metropolitan Police, the guys with neon green vests whose jurisdiction ends at the M25. They are called Scotland Yard because their original headquarters was on a road called Scotland Yard. When they moved house to a really ugly building over by Parliament Square, they kept the tradition and named their office block New Scotland Yard.
The Ministry of Justice is just around the corner in an equally hideous building. I get that these two institutions probably interact a fair bit, so it make senses that they are next to each other, but it makes for a pretty bland neighbourhood.
Just a bit farther down is the Wellington Barracks, another unfortunate construction (although what more can you expect from military housing).
This is where the guys with red jackets and poofy black hats live. I actually saw one of the soldiers walking home from the palace and it was kind of bizarre to see him being a normal person. I am so used to them standing around with their faces frozen while tourists poke them that it was quite a strange sensation to watch him be a normal guy just walking home after a long day of marching up and down the square (as normal as you can be in that uniform).
The good news about this building is that on the front side it is actually quite pretty, and apparently is a good alternative place to watch the Changing of the Guard if you want to avoid the crowds and actually see what’s going on. If you are into military stuff (I am not, so I cannot vouch for it), you can also visit the Guard’s Museum here and learn what it is like to be a Royal Guard.
That’s about enough of the ugly stuff for me. Long story short, I don’t love it.
The Pretty Parts
All this ugly stuff makes the pretty places stand out that much more though. If you’ve seen nothing but gross concrete complexes for three miles, you really appreciate the decadent lobby of a fancy hotel you happened to find down a little alley.
The lobby of St. Ermin’s Hotel really did stop me in my tracks. I haven’t seen anything quite like it in London before. It’s absolutely gorgeous. The staff were really friendly, the tea looked outstanding and the patio is perfection. Plus it sounds like it is a really nice place to stay if you need a 4-star hotel in central London.
The building has quite an intriguing history too. It was originally a block of flats used by MPs since Parliament is just around the corner. During World War II, British intelligence forces met at the hotel (I am guessing not in the lobby) and created the Special Operations Executive organisation. The SOE’s mandate was to conduct espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance in occupied Europe.
Slightly ironic that the Cambridge Five, a group of UK double agents, also met at the hotel to pass on their top-level secrets to the Soviet Union. The story of these five is a pretty big deal in British fiction. Apparently this betrayal is still a bit of a sore spot. The most recent interpretation you might have heard about is the movie Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
St. Ermin’s Hotel was definitely the most beautiful place I saw today, but I did find a couple of other charming spots. This roof garden is in the middle of the Cardinal Place Shopping Centre near Victoria Station. Normally a mall wouldn’t really be noteworthy to me, but I liked the layout and feel of this place. It is very pedestrian friendly (different paths all over so it was easy to go any direction), it has a lot of green spaces and it is in one of the prettier parts of the neighbourhood.
Here’s another view at ground level.
I mostly loved that it was an incredibly beautiful day and a big crowd of people was gathered on the roof to watch Wimbledon. I really enjoy that about London. They set up big screens all over the city for big sporting events (I should say for their big sporting events. I haven’t seen any screens playing World Cup…) so anyone can pull up a bit of grass and enjoy lunch while they watch the game.
Changing Ugly to Pretty
Other than hiring a better architect to start with, there are two ways you can convert these ugly places into pretty ones: tear them down and start completely over American-style or slowly renovate them, one brick (and lots of tea breaks) at a time.
Whichever way they go about it, construction is a constant in London. Over the course of these walks, I have begun to appreciate the amount of work it takes to keep a city this size functioning.
We have a tendency to whinge about roads being closed or pavements being blocked, but if you stop and think about the amount of wear and tear that goes on around here on a day-to-day basis, it is pretty amazing this place stays together at all.
We wear it down. We break it. We chip it. We stain it. We urinate on it. We walk it into the ground.
A massive army of construction workers build their asses off every day to fix what we break. And it’s thanks to these throngs of builders that London stays up and running in a pretty extraordinary way.
The Crossrail project is ridiculously huge. I can’t go on a walk without running into construction for it somewhere.
For those who don’t live in London (or who do and who are to shy to admit they don’t know what it is), this completed line will connect some major train hubs at the periphery of central London that have, until now, only been linked by the Underground. For people crossing through the city on their commute, it will save half an hour or more on the train itself and eliminate transfers from one mode of transport to another (as well as the faff of switching lines within stations).
It’s a big deal for London.
I can’t wait to ride it when it’s finally up and running!
So there you have it. Day 51. Quite a lot of ugly with a little bit of beauty (and mystery) thrown in. Or as I’d like to say, another average day in London.
See you next time!
25 days until the Congestion Zone Ends Party! Follow on Twitter for more updates.
Quick update from the future: now that this project is finished, I’m off on another adventure! Keep in touch on my new blog at Three Miles an Hour. See you there!