Postcode Topographical Race

Someone at work raised this as a possible challenge the other day. To find the shortest route across London that takes in the most postcodes, i.e. the first part of the postcode E1, SW6 etc. May sound simple at first but three of us came up with different ideas for the most profitable routes. I thought an east-west route from Liverpool Street up to Angel and down across to Hyde Park would be a winner. Looking at a postcode map of London doesn’t make it much easier, although it looks like a route across Sw3-Sw6 and north might be a good one.
In judging such a thing, how would you do it?
Pedometers and camera phones – pedometers for the distance, cameraphone to snap street signs showing the postcode and recording the time. It could be a spectator sport if the pictures are blogged (as on this blog). Then the winner could be deduced by dividing the distance by the number of postcodes perambulated. I think there would have to be a creative differential to encourage contestants to be adventurous and really explore the city.
I’d appreciate any comments on this.

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Walking the Finsbury Forts


Mount Mills EC1
Originally uploaded by soapbox.

I stumbled across an article on the web the other day. Think I was looking for something on Old Merlin’s Cave Tavern and found this piece on the Architectural Association site that makes reference to a chain of Civil War defences that cut across the old borough of Finsbury:
“Waterfield Fort was at the top of St John’s Street, exactly where Spa Green Estate stands today, linked eastwards by trenches running along Sebastian Street to a huge fort at Mount Mills off the Goswell Road. Westwards, the lines cut to New River Head’s circular reservoir and on to Mount Pleasant, east of Black Mary’s Hole and another city dump. In between, a covered walkway was cut up the hill that is now Amwell Street, to Islington Pond, which would soon became the extant reservoir in Claremont Square.”

The author, Guy Mannes Abbott, makes the link between this system of fortifications that stretched eastwards through Shoreditch and Whitechapel to Wapping built to protect the fledgling English Revolution and the Utopian aspirations of the municipal architecture of Berthold Lubetkin built in the old London borough of Finsbury:
“The forts mark an area known for its spas and radical reformers and which, in the seventeenth century, Wenceslaus Hollar represented in a series of etchings showing extensive earthworks. They protected an area that would become the site of the largest and most ambitious plan ever for the social regeneration of London and which remains a paragon of what could be achieved with social housing. Spa Green, Bevin Court and Priory Green just north of Finsbury are all positive manifestations of a politically committed and revolutionarily ambitious approach to collective works, but – conscious of what there was to fight for – Tecton also produced a plan for an elaborate system of defences and network of communications with uncanny echoes of the Civil War forts.”

So after work in the fading light I headed off to see what traces remained. I approached the forts from the south, across the wobbly bridge and round St Pauls. The towers of the Barbican Estate stand like sentinels challenging the medieval monastic complex of the Charterhouse across Goswell Road. If we’re looking for the spirit of rebellion and utopianism it’s written here on the names of the blocks that make up the Barbican: Thomas More House, Milton Court, Defoe House, Cromwell Tower, Bunyan Court, Mountjoy House after a Huguenot refugee, Willoughby House after Catherine an upholder of the new Protestantism.

Progressing northwards through the concrete I feel a tangible sense of anticipation. Leading off either side Gee Street, Bastwick Street, Pear Tree Court, straight rows of unforgiving slab-like structures. This landscape gives little away. Draws you in then repels you.

The Old Ivy House marks the corner of Seward Street, the sort of pub you’d only go into if you were desperate for a pint. The estate over the road is a red-brick construction of towers and walkways. The gloomy entrance to Seward Street stinks of stale piss and grime. A street sign on the back of the pub heralds the site of Mount Mills, a significant point on the “Utopian enclosure”. The view is far from utopian, grubby backs of houses, iron fire escapes, air-con vents, a hexagonal building juts out unnaturally and the road curves around it. Opposite a new gleaming block of flats with glass-brick lift-shaft/ stairwell. Mount Mills is now a new-laid tarmac carpark. I look back to the pub and the trendy coffee bar (coffee@goswell road) from higher ground. The mound. What was also a plague pit, windmill, public laystall has given way to Mini Cooper, Audi, tall TV aerials, private parking.

Looking east along Lever Street there is a noticeable rise in the road roughly adjacent with Mount Mills, it drops the other side towards Central Street. On the other side of Goswell Lever Street becomes Percival Street which leads into Skinner Street where the old Merlin’s Cave Tavern stood. Mannes Abbott sees the story of the construction of these defences being fundamental to the English identity and the narrative of the island. What more potent national mythology than the Arthurian legends, commemorated in the same streets.

Sebastian Street is immediately darker, tree-lined. Modernist buildings of the City University becoming a row of Georgian townhouses. A contemporary source described a trench dyke running along here to St. John’s Fort. I pass through Northampton Square with its bandstand. Crows squawk, they would have feasted on the carrion tossed into the ditch.

I exit on Wyclif Street. Another reference to radicalism.

Kids in hoodies riding BMXs whiz across St John St. Spa Green Estate that occupied the site of Waterfield Fort commands the high ground that marks the final approach to the Angel tollgate. This was bandit country in those days, the Angel Tavern did a brisk trade with travellers wanting to avoid progressing through the open fields in the dark.

I can smell a wet muddy fragrance. Kids play noisily on the football/ basketball court. The block facing St John Street is Tunbridge House, probably a reference to New Tunbridge Wells which was another name for the Islington Spa pleasure grounds that were here in the C18th. Do the kids see this as the Utopia Lubetkin designed, or a ghetto? One 18 year old threw himself to his death from a ninth floor window of a council block down here last week.

It’s dark and I’m put off walking through the estate. Its defences still in operation. From Rosebery Avenue you can see how Spa Green rests in a hollow. The wave of the outside wall recalling a fortified line. The Thames Water HQ opposite seems to continue the wave motif on the other side of the road, two grand municipal buildings complementing each other except that one has been converted to house the well-healed rather than the socially excluded.

Punters from the Sadlers Wells spill out onto the pavement. Up Amwell Street and I try to imagine it as a covered walkway as described in the article. It’s echoes Elizabeth Gordon’s speculation that a tunnel ran from the base of Amwell Street into the heart of Penton Mound where Merlin lived in a cave.

I pass on a pint in Filthy McNasty’s as it’s too packed and noisy. Three rosy cheeked pleasure seekers announce “Here it is”, and for a second I think that they too are looking for St. John’s Fort. “Filthy McNasty’s, s’posed to be really good.” I get a bottle of Polish Lager from the cornershop instead.

You can read “rebel city” here: http://www.g-m-a.net/docs/c_forting.html

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Finisterre

I eventually caught St. Etienne’s psychogeographical film about London ‘Finisterre’ at the ICA the other week. The band and directors Paul Kelly and Kieran Evans openly acknowledge that their project was a response to Patrick Keiller’s classic, ‘London’. In the year that Patrick Keiller was shooting his seminal film ‘London’, Saint Etienne recorded their second album ‘So Strong’. Both film and album captured a raw slice of the capital in 1992. Keiller’s film set against the backdrop of John Major’s election triumph, IRA bombs and Black Wednesday, just as St Etienne’s album was an audio tour of Greasy Spoon cafes and cold Kentish Town pavements.

Keiller’s influence is immediately apparent in the opening sequences of Finisterre. We see static establishing shots that are ‘London’s’ signature and hear the voice of an unseen, un-named narrator as with Paul Schofield’s perfect dry delivery of his account of excursions taken with his former lover Robinson. In Finisterre it is never obvious who the ‘flaneurs’ of the piece are, we merely see a train arriving from Croydon at 06:01. Suburban boys out to explore the capital. It is implicit that this is the story of the band’s journey through London.

The other key inspiration is the James Mason fronted film of Geoffrey Fletcher’s book ‘The London Nobody Knows’ with it’s celebration of the forgotten and neglected city of the sixties; Chapel Market, Percy Circus, Gin Palaces, public loos. We see Bob Stanley in a café flicking through its pages.

As the film unfolds these influences recede as other characters are introduced delivering their meditations on London. Artist Julian Opie, who designed one of St Etienne’s album covers, the guy at the record pressing plant where their first single was committed to vinyl, Vic Godard punk hero and postman.

The London we see is invariably the one inhabited by the band their collaborators, Hackney, Islington, Highgate, Soho. In this sense it represents more of personal topography than a ‘state of the city’ film essay that Keiller achieved. The references here are more towards the films of John Smith, particularly ‘Girl Chewing Gum’ and ‘Black Tower’.

The personal element to the film becomes its most compelling aspect rather than its stylistic homage to Keiller. The voice-over delivering lists of observations and associations reminiscent of the hypnotic prose of Hackney writer Iain Sinclair’s dérive reports from the unseen city. Fused with the visuals it constructs a palimpsest of the capital in 2003 much as Keiller’s film captured ’92.

Islington gets good coverage in the film: Percy Circus, the old dairy on Amwell Street, the world’s most uninviting dentist’s on Copenhagen Street (with a hand-painted sign in shaky letters), Packington Estate, Barbican, the Water Rats on Grays Inn Road, and Lubetkin’s Bevin Court with its famous stairwell.

The new St. Etienne album is named after a block of flats on the City Road, Turnpike House, and their follow-up film to ‘Finisterre’, ‘Caff’ featured the Golden Fish Bar on Farringdon Road, the recently deceased Alfredo’s on Essex Road (now S&M), and the Rheidol Rooms in Rheidhol Street.

I showed Bob, Pete, and Paul (another Wycombe boy and onetime member of Heavenly Records band East Village) my battered copy of Maxwell’s ‘The Fringe of London’ which they hadn’t seen and earned me a copy of the DVD (which is on sale now) – well worth its place next to my copies of ‘London’, ‘Galivant’, and ‘London Orbital’.

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The Way of the Topographical Rambler

Finally got my hands on a copy of Gordon S Maxwell’s ‘The Fringe of London’ (pub. 1925). I first perused it in Amwell Books (Maxwell goes to the village of Amwell in Chapter 1) but was put off by the £35 asking price. It then took over a month to get a copy via inter-library loan, but I stupidly only photocopied the chapter on Maxwell’s encounter with the last minstrel in the hills near High Wycombe. I had a copy coming from Canada that got lost in the post. A friend then offered to lend me his copy but he left it in Monks Park whilst retracing Maxwell’s footsteps to the same place. So finally picking up a copy of this magical crypto-topographical text via ebay was a moment to be savoured.

The introduction is titled; ‘Ventures and Adventures in Topography’; it’s subtitled: “On rambling round the outskirts of London, and the unexpected turns, trials and triumphs that lie in the path of the wayfarer”. An Edwardian ‘London Orbital’ (someone I know mentioned Maxwell to Iain Sinclair who appeared never to have heard of him). It reads like a manifesto for the psychogeographically-minded. In 1925 Maxwell wrote:

“The borderline between folk-lore and fairy-tales is not more nebulous than that between topographical research and “nosing about.”
To confess to the study of folk-lore and topography is to be thought somewhat of a savant, but to own that you like fairy-tales and exploring old buildings, or anywhere fancy may lead you, is to risk being considered of rather peculiar tastes by some people, yet I challenge anyone to prove a distinct dividing-line between the two things. “

“There are two ways of topographical hunting: one is to follow the “scent” of a clue, and the other is to go into the unknown to find what may be. Each way has its own charms and surprises. “

“The true rambler must never be afraid of committing the crime of trespass; fair words are a better help than fast legs. “

“A great point for the rambler to remember is not to believe anything he is told, or at least to commit it to paper, without verification. “

“There is an interesting game I often play. I call it “The Topographical Detective.” It is tracing houses and places in well-known books which the author took as a model but hinted at rather than specifically mentioned. “

“The way of the topographical rambler is sometimes hard, often muddy, usually interesting; but never dull.”

I see Maxwell as part of a trend in topographical writing that seems to span from the 1920’s and ends with Geoffrey Fletcher in the 1960’s. During this time you have people such as SPB Mais with his call to the hills to walk and commune with the spirits of the air, HV Morton sniffing around the flea markets and alleyways of forgotten London, William Margrie’s London Explorer’s Club, Fletcher’s ‘Offbeat London’ of public loos and strange street-lighting and many others, most notably E.O Gordon’s ‘Prehistoric London: Its Mounds and Circles’ (I blog this from the top of Penton Mound). I think there’s definitely a link between these writers and the neo-psychogeographical revival led by Stewart Home, Sinclair and Patrick Keiller in the 1990’s.

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The London Explorers’ Club

The London Explorers’ Club was founded by W. Margrie in 1930 “to study London in all her moods and phases”. In 1933 he published ‘The Diary of a London Explorer’, part autobiography part manifesto on behalf of the club.

“We look into London’s kitchens and backyards as well as her front parlours. When we visit a building we are concerned not with dead stone, wood, and metal, but with the dramas, romances and personalities that the wood and stone represent. Every institution we have explored, from a cathedral to a brewery, symbolises mankind’s aspirations and strivings for a better and fuller life.”

Margrie also put a heavy emphasis on the fact that the Club was “jolly, human and creative”.
Wearing a spray of London Pride as their emblem they combed London “to discover the romances hidden in her ancient buildings, the sorrows in her slums, the unexpected beauties of her streets and squares”.

In a statement to the press they declared their mission: “We shall see London in all her moods, and not only her beauty but her ugliness as well. We shall try to recapture her histories and memories, seeing all there is to be seen by the flare of the gas-jet, by the light of the moon, or from the electric arc-lamps”.

In the first 3 years of its existence the LEC visited 180 Places including: Croydon Aerodrome, Headquarters of the Fire Brigade, Merrie Islington which was “not as merrie as it used to be”, Caledonian Market, Historic Deptford guided by the vicar of Deptford, Samuel Jones’s Camberwell Beauty Mills which specialises in gummed paper, and Peek Frean’s Biscuit Factory.
They embarked on an All-Night Ramble Through Central London, an act recently repeated by an artist to much media interest. Their nocturnal derive included the City, Covent Garden, Adelphi Arches and parts of the West End. Margrie wrote that “One of our objects is to study London in all her moods. London at 2am is very different from London at 2pm. Central London on a fine summer night is a fine place for poets, dreamers, musicians, lovers, optimists, and explorers. It is romantic, lovely, and mysterious.”

Another of their stunts was The World’s Greatest Treasure Hunt where competitors had two hours to identify twenty-four representative City institutions and a quotation. The hunt started at Mansion House and finished at Monument Station; and the clues included: 1. A church associated with Cockneys. 6. Insurance institution associated with a bell. 9. Historic institution associated with blood and beef. The winner would be crowned The Champion Londoner.

They pioneered the idea of the Topographical Race. Starting at Trafalgar Square and finishing at a restaurant in Holborn competitors had to visit ten institutions, “those spending the least amount on buses and trams would stand the best chance.” The institutions on the circuit were Bedlam, Boadicea Statue, Fire Brigade HQ, Friend’s House, Lambeth Palace, Law Courts, Mount Pleasant, new B.B.C House, St. George’s Hospital, and St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Margrie rounds off his book by proposing the formation of a Metropolitan Free State to replace the LCC. As a member of the left-wing Independent Labour Party it appears to be a forerunner of Red Ken’s GLC, “a central co-ordinating authority for the whole of greater London”, but would also include “five or six home counties, and the Thames”.

Margrie then spells out his grand vision for the new city state: “It is my supreme ambition to be the first Prime Minister of this Metropolitan Free State. When I realize my dream I shall emulate Mussolini and give Londoners plenty of dramas pageants and shows to wake them up”. He promises that under his rule “For the first time in London’s history Londoners will take an interest in their city and province, and all London will become as merry as a Peckham bye-election.”

This mixture of a form of proto-psychogeography allied to visions of a utopian future have echoes of the Situationist movement that would follow some 25 years later, although instead of drinking absinthe in Montmatre they supped tea in Camberwell.
The London Explorers’ Club seems to be a forgotten entity but lives on in the upsurge in interest in the hidden secret city led first by Geoffrey Fletcher and lately by Iain Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd.

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Dobney’s, Penton Street

Penton Street, N1

“Upon the site of Dobney’s Place, at the back of Penton Street, stood an old house, having a bowling-green, and tea-gardens, with ponds, &c. similar to those at White Conduit House….”
This strip is in the midst of a make-over whilst White Conduit House remains a locked up dodgy boozer.

J. Nelson’s History, Topography, and Antiquities of the Parish of St.Mary Islington in the County of Middlesex, pub 1811 also has a nice note about topographical writing:
“The study of our National Antiquities has called forth the talents of the most eminent scholars; and it is generally admitted, that writings on this subject, combining Historical remark with Topographical illustration, are calculated to convey a knowledge of our domestic concerns in a way the most entertaining and instructive.”

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