28 February 2012 7:43 AM

Salubrious solitude

Like buses it seems celebrities come along in pairs, for after months of not seeing a famous face I had two in succession.

It was the first snowfall of the year when my radio offered me a job to take a well-known actor with left leaning liberal views back to his London apartment.

Looking up from my screen there, level with my bonnet was the scourge of the Guardian Jeremy Clarkson, looking forlorn and liberally covered in snow. “Sorry, I’m booked”, those three words have probably earned me a mention in his Sunday Times column.

When my booking sat in the back of the cab he thought it hilarious that his nemesis had been turned down in order for me to take him to his destination, which proved to be the most secret apartments in London - Albany.

They were described by Country Life as “London’s most exclusive address”. Accommodation within is not referred to something as vulgar as a flat or apartment, the 69 self-contained living quarters are known as “sets” and are watched over by porters, usually ex-servicemen who, until recently wore top hats and tail-coats.

Originally a bachelor only establishment, the previous residents read like a Who’s Who of the Great and Good, and in some cases not so good. They include: Anthony Armstrong-Jones; Jane Austen’s brother Henry; Sir Thomas Beecham; Lord Byron; Sir George Canning, Alan Clark; Kenneth Clark; Dame Edith Evans; William Gladstone; Graham Greene; Edward Heath; Georgette Heyer; Aldous Huxley; Margaret Leighton; Edgar Lustgarten; Malcolm Muggeridge; J. B. Priestley; Terence Rattigan; Terence Stamp; Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree; Margaret Thatcher. Not to forget the fictional gentleman thief A. J. Raffles and, of course, Jack, in The Importance of being Earnest.

Said to be the oldest apartment block in London its location could not be more central - or discreet. The black door to its rear entrance opens up onto Burlington Gardens with Saville Row opposite, while the front door is set back by 100 ft from Piccadilly thus obscuring it from the preying eyes of shoppers leaving Albany’s local grocers – Fortnum and Mason.

The original house was built adjacent to Burlington House (The Royal Academy) by Lord Melbourne for the staggering sum of £100,000 in 1775. During their short time at Melbourne House, as it was so named, Lady Melbourne had numerous affairs, and one tryst with Lord Egremont produced a son William Lamb. When Lamb married, his wife, Caroline became the infamous lover of Lord Byron who, when lodging at Albany, would smuggle Lady Caroline Lamb into his set dressed as a page boy.

Seventeen years after the Melbourne’s had moved into their elegant townhouse they struck a deal over dinner with the Duke of York and Albany, King George III’s second son, and they agreed to swap houses. Lord and Lady Melbourne moved into York House near the site of modern Horseguards Parade £23,000 the richer, the differential sum paid by the Duke of York. This money went some way to reduce Melbourne’s debts incurred by his wife’s extravagance.

The Duke of York spent money just as recklessly and his bank, to who he owed a fortune, came up with the idea of developing the heavily mortgaged property. The townhouse was divided into 12 apartments and two blocks of three stories were constructed east and west of the rear garden, with a 500ft covered walkway, known as Rope Walk stretching between the buildings.

Albany remains much as it did when converted in 1802 which boasted at the time that “No younger son of a duke need be ashamed to put [Albany address] on his card”.

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20 February 2012 9:50 AM

Dead boring

It's the stuff of a science fiction writer's dreams. Excavating in London one finds something buried that should have remained entombed forever.

In the late 1950s the BBC transmitted the Quatermass trilogy, culminating in Quatermass and The Pit, in which a dangerous object is unearthed at a building site in Knightsbridge (of which more later). Bringing this film genre up to date the 2002 film Reign of Fire has London Underground construction workers penetrating a cave in which a hibernating dragon is awoken.

Next month tunnelling commences on CrossRail, Europe's largest construction project, to bore over 26 miles of tunnel beneath London, a city which has after two thousand years many buried secrets.

The Black Death of 1348-49 wiped out half of London's population and put such a strain on traditional churchyards two new internment areas were created. "No Man's Land" was located just outside Smithfield and its annex at Spitalfields which is was reported swallowed over 50,000 souls.

The plague of 1665 was for London much worse. At least 68,000 people perished, that was out of a population at the time of half-a-million. To put that into context, should it occur in modern London it would equate to 800,000. With London having grown exponentially in the succeeding years since the Black Death, by 1665 it was now one of the world's largest cities. The cramped and unhygienic living conditions, coupled with one of the hottest summers London had known, meant that plague spread fast, and this was not helped by the culling of cats and dogs who had helped keep down the rat population, the carrier of the infected flea, although recent research has hypothesised that humans were the main culprit of the plague's spread.

Within just a few months, with graveyards overflowing, plague pits were sunk in Fulham, Gypsy Hill, Tothill Fields, Westminster and Kensington - the site of the fictionalised Quatermass Pit. Another, the Great Pit of Aldgate, measured 40ft x 15ft and was 20ft deep which consumed 1,114 bodies within a fortnight.

In modern times when the Piccadilly Line was being constructed, in a scene reminiscent of Quatermass, workmen found that the section between Knightsbridge and South Kensington stations had to be rerouted to avoid a plague pit, this has resulted in the line swerving dramatically.

Modern Aldgate station is built above the Great Pit of Aldgate, while at Green Park during tunnelling for the Victoria Line the boring machine ploughed straight into an unmarked plague pit. On the Bakerloo Line at the south end lie two tunnels; one exits to the line at Elephant and Castle, the other to a dead end to stop runaway trains and behind the end wall is another plague pit.

The majority of records for the location of burial pits are piecemeal and parochial. Most parishes had to resort to larger pits simply because of the sheer number of bodies they had to dispose of. These pits can be traced in the parish churchwarden's accounts, where payment for digging was recorded. A rather illuminating if gruesome map has been produced by Public Grief Junkie at:

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13 February 2012 3:29 PM

Lost in translation

Lost in translation London cabbies have the reputation that they have an opinion on everything; they will not go south of the River; and know just about anything to do with London, all of which we do little to dispel, but which are patiently untrue.

This third urban myth that we are in fact just a mobile information desk to catch “The Lost” and reliably point them in the right direction must consume hours of our time every day. Contemplating the meaning of life whilst waiting at traffic lights, the lost break into one’s hypnotic state, surprise and momentarily disorientate you. They ask with trepidation sometimes in a northern accent “Do you know the way to the Lyceum for the Lion King”?

You see it’s 7.21 in the evening, they are hopelessly lost and the show commences in nine minutes. Sure you can drive them, but it’s Covent Garden, gridlocked as usual, and you know with the one-way systems it’s far quicker to walk. You are flummoxed, but you must never reveal this, you’re the world authority on everything London, right? But as you spend an entire lifetime driving, walking in the opposite direction to the road’s one-way system is – well just weird. Don’t show your indecision, not a frown must pass your countenance, not even for a nano-second. “Certainly Sir, it isn’t far from here, just a few minutes’ walk away”.

That has bought a few more seconds thought. Do you now send them across the Piazza, but what does the back of the Opera House look like? Would they know when to turn right? And are they going to even know when to turn into that famous square? Your momentary pause in answering has brought on near hysteria from the girlfriend, who has spent hours getting ready little realising that Londoners dress down nowadays to go to the theatre.

They have spent nearly an hour walking around the area’s labyrinthine streets and to cap it all can hardly understand the cabbie with his cockney accent. By now, and I swear TfL do this deliberately – the lights have changed and that nice private hire driver in his Mercedes is suggesting, by the use of his horn, that conversing with pedestrians just isn’t to his liking. The best pedestrian route that was forming in your brain has disappeared from your consciousness, and to make matters worse at the end of the road, now empty of traffic due to your inability to more forward, is a fare. “Look walk just down to the end of the street, turn left and you can’t miss it”. Yes very professional, but at least they start to move in the right direction. And come to think of it you haven’t told them that the start of the show is not to be missed with a sun rising over Africa’s savannah. Now where was that fare I saw?

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07 February 2012 9:01 AM

Suicidal bakers

Topped by what looks like a flaming Christmas pudding, this, the tallest isolated stone column in the world, stands 202ft high and although obscured by office buildings, the Shard being the latest, can still offer commanding views of The City. If you have the energy, and it must be said, the courage to ascend its 311 steps the view is spectacular from the top of London’s Monument.

You climb up inside the column with just a thin, worn handrail to prevent your rapid descent until you arrive at the viewing platform. This was once a favourite spot for people wishing to commit suicide who had a head for heights. There must be something about kneading dough, or the fact that as a result of a nearby baker’s oven the City was consumed by fire, that has made this ledge the launch pad of choice for suicidal bakers. Six unfortunates have committed suicide by jumping from the top of the Monument and three had associations with baking; John Cradock in 1788; a man named Leander in 1810; and Margaret Moyes a daughter of a baker in 1839. This knead to end one’s life stopped in 1842 when a cage was inserted over the platform.

James Boswell - Dr. Johnson’s biographer - came here in 1762 to climb to what was then the highest viewpoint in London. Half-way up he suffered a panic attack, but he persevered and made it to the top, where he found it “horrid to be so monstrous a way up in the air, so far above London and all its spires”.

Poor Boswell didn’t have the incentive that you now have of receiving a certificate for your efforts when you reach terra firma. But as you receive the proof of completing your ascent at the bottom of the column, there is no check of your bravery in having reached the very top.

The Monument stands on the site of St. Margaret’s Church in Fish Street, the first church lost to the Great Fire of London; the column stands 202ft high and 202ft from the seat of the fire in Pudding Lane which in 1666 destroyed four-fifths of the City.

It was designed by Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke who had wanted to use its hollow centre to suspend a pendulum for scientific experiments, but the vibrations from the heavy traffic on Fish Hill made the conditions unsuitable. During the construction they also used it as a fixed telescope, again with unsatisfactory results.

The architects originally wanted to surmount the column with a phoenix (embodying the motto of London (of which we, alas seldom use): “Resurgem” – “I am reborn”, this was abandoned in favour of a colossal statue of King Charles II. But the Monarch pointed to the fact that he didn’t start the fire, so why should he be plonked on top of the monument which commemorates its origins. So a golden flaming Christmas pudding it was.

Lastly, one curious incident happened during the Blitz. On 9th September 1940 one of the first heavy high-explosive bombs to fall on the City landed in King William Street, almost exactly 202ft  from the Monument the same distance to the west as our culprit bakery was to the north.

The author has been known to express an opinion whilst driving his cab – other thoughts and trivia can be found without the need to tip at

30 January 2012 10:26 AM

A different view

It was in 1962 with the construction of the Post Office Tower that St. Paul’s Cathedral lost its claim to be London’s tallest building after dominating the City’s skyline for centuries. It then took nearly 20 years before the NatWest Tower laid claim to that crown, but it now seems for developers a race to the top.

Socio economists are those people who, if you didn’t know - or care, study the social mood of society and they have argued that ladies hemlines reflect the price of shares (when they rise so do share and vice versa). The opposite could be paid of building developers, for in times of hardship they build ever higher.

The Empire State building in New York was started in 1930 in competition with 40 Wall Street and the Chrysler Building to become the world’s tallest building. The Empire State building won and was opened on 1st May 1931 just in time to coincide with the great depression, in fact the building wouldn’t become profitable until 1950 by which time it was dubbed “The Empty State Building”.

Centre Point suffered a similar fate, when completed in 1966 it remained empty for years as its developer sought to find a sole tenant to take the entire 34 floors. For a recent development it is hard to get more central in the City of London financial district than the Walbrook. This gleaming glass box designed by Norman Foster’s firm sits less than 660 feet from the Bank of England and almost two years after its completion the office building remains empty.

Just why do developers choose to build during times of economic woes? The Georgian landowners would employ their estate workers at times of hardship to build obelisks and follies for their landscaped gardens in a philanthropic gesture to prevent their staff from starving to death.

Not so the developers of the City. By choosing to construct the largest/tallest/ugliest or maddest in a recession they hope to economise on labour and material costs.

Now after 350 years St. Paul’s is surrounded by building sites each intending to make its mark on London’s landscape. Bishopsgate - has there ever been a time since the Romans when this road wasn’t dug up? - has two, the Heron Tower completed last year and the 64-storey Pinnacle which coincidentally at the time of writing I read in the Evening Standard has had its construction halted with only 7-floors built due to lack of funding. If the Pinnacle, or Helter Skelter as it has been dubbed, is ever finished it will be the tallest tower in the City of London and the second tallest in the European Union. There is the Walkie Talkie in Fenchurch Street, Leadenhall Street’s Cheesegrater and the big daddy of them all the Shard at London Bridge, now the tallest building in the European Union.

Will they improve London’s vista? That is not likely for quaint beauty is not their purpose. London is a world class city and as such cannot be preserved in aspic with only tourism to fill its coffers – Europe has plenty of other heritage cities.

London lost its charm when it had to be rebuilt after the Blitz. The question that should be asked is will these monoliths make a profit? Many skyscrapers have a poor track record, let us hope that more companies will relocate to London and not take the BBC’s lead and move up north. Hopefully if there are enough jobs in London to fill their floors with office workers some might have the need for a cab.

The author has been known to express an opinion whilst driving his cab – other thoughts and trivia can be found without the need to tip at

17 January 2012 9:11 AM

Money to burn

It is arguably Londoner’s favourite industrial building and best viewed when travelling along the road of the rich and famous – Cheyne Walk. There on the opposite bank of the Thames is “The Temple of Power” as it was then dubbed when constructed in the 1930s.

Battersea Power Station, the largest brick built building in Europe - even if it does not have a roof - was constructed in two halves, both identical from the outside and comprising two individual power stations. Battersea A Power Station was built first with Battersea B Power Station to its east constructed later in the 1950s. The two stations were built to an identical design, providing when finished the well known four-chimney layout. The station ceased generating electricity in 1983, but over the past 50 years it has become one of the best known landmarks in London and is Grade II* listed.

Two years ago we had rather hoped, or at least I did, that Real Estate Opportunities had a viable plan to “save” Battersea and develop the site with the mix of retail units and the ubiquitous riverside residential units.

They have gone the same way as other developers with money to burn – at least in 1940 when they literally ran the boilers on bundles of used banknotes the power station produced electricity and not just hot air.

In the 1980s Alton Towers owner John Broome wanted to turn the building into a giant fun fair, even booking Mrs. Thatcher to cut the ribbon. His dreams went up in smoke selling his £350 investment for £10 million to Taiwanese property tycoons, but their dreams of developing its prime riverside location also went down the Swanee – or the Thames.

Even using it for a photo shoot has been eventful. A pink pig tethered to Battersea’s chimneys for Pink Floyd’s album Animals broke its moorings and soared 5,000 feet disrupting air traffic approaching Heathrow, the pig eventually landing in a field in Kent.

At King’s Cross the stark beauty of industrial heritage has been recognised by many who argue that an English Heritage listed Victorian gasometer become a centre piece of a new park being constructed. Could we not use Battersea Power Station as a centrepiece of a new park?

The old girl merits a dignified retirement, not a single day’s production of electricity was lost during the war and at one time the generators were supplying one fifth of London’s power, she has earned her place in the sun.

So instead of the latest wiz-bang idea to make a buck by turning it into a 60,000-seater stadium for Chelsea FC (how can that be with Chelsea on the opposite bank?), let Battersea Power Station be a park, a quiet place for reflection and a chance to remember when we had an Empire and coal was King, to remember a time when instead of buying France’s power we could actually keep the home fires burning and the lights turned on using electricity produced at Battersea.

The author has been known to express an opinion whilst driving his cab – other thoughts and trivia can be found without the need to tip at

22 December 2011 3:48 PM

Sherbets lose their fizz

By the end of next year the archetypal cabs both loved and loathed in equal measure by the drivers will not be seen plying for hire in London.

The FX4 first appeared on London streets in 1959, its shape beloved of tourists, has sold more than 75,000 vehicles and was the first diesel cab with an automatic gearbox.

Later rebranded the Fairway, along with Leyland’s original Mini has become the longest lived of British car designs and remained in production for 38 years.Now due to stringent emission restrictions this iconic symbol of London is due to go the way of the Routemaster Bus.

As drivers we won’t lament this passing; with its leaking roof due to the hire and questionable handling the Fairway was far from ideal.Tourists however, love them. My modern vehicle has been dismissed in favour of an old fashioned Fairway behind me on Harrods rank. So could there be a case for a select few converted vehicles ferrying tourists around London much as with the Routemaster’s two remaining routes?

The modern successor to the ‘classic cab’ is the German built Mercedes Vito, which in years to come will almost certainly not arouse the same degree of nostalgia, looking as it does like a van with windows.Which brings me very neatly to the 2012 Olympics and the vehicles of choice to convey the Olympic family around London and in so doing advertising the very best of our capital city to a worldwide audience estimated to number in the billions.

And the vehicle of choice showcasing London is – BMW – a solid piece of German engineering certainly, but not remotely connected to London or Britain for that matter. Some 4,000 vehicles including the BMW 520d one of the most powerful cars driven on public roads will be used during the Games. Driven by “volunteer” drivers in a £200 million sponsorship deal, the vehicles are rumoured to be left hand drive, but that of course is irrelevant as using the dedicated Olympic Lanes the drivers are never going to encounter any other vehicle.

Even our own modern taxis are regarded to have too higher emissions for their use in transporting officials around London next year. While the old classic cab might have emissions enough to give the vapours to our green guests next year, the utilitarian German vehicles don’t give that little fizz of nostalgia that the old sherbet (dab) the FX4 generated.

The author has been known to express an opinion whilst driving his cab – other thoughts and trivia can be found without the need to tip at

21 November 2011 3:20 PM

Must break wind

CAB is one of the many acronyms learnt on The Knowledge; this one is the aide memoire for three bridges spanning the Thames at its wealthiest location: Chelsea, Albert and Battersea, and one – Albert – is arguably London’s prettiest and most feminine. Except for Tower Bridge, built in 1894, Albert Bridge is the only Thames road bridge in central London never to have been replaced.

Built by R. M. Ordish in 1873 Albert Bridge (it is never referred to as The Albert Bridge) is coming to the end of a major restoration project which it is promised will be completed by December 2. As well as structural damage caused by traffic, the timbers underpinning the deck were being seriously rotted by the urine of dogs who were crossing it to and from nearby Battersea Park. Now re-painted pink and strung with fairy lights the adjacent cabbies hut must be one of the most romantic greasy spoon locations in the capital London.

The unusual construction, and you are going to have to bear with me on this one, has three spans and what’s known in engineering circles as a straight-link suspension system. Each half of the bridge is supported by wrought iron bars attached to the top of the two highly ornamental towers. Meanwhile the side girders along the parapets are suspended, making the bridge an odd mix of cantilever and suspension.

Evidence of the bridge’s early revenue stream is a small hexagonal toll house, a rare survival and the only bridge left with one anywhere in London. But for me the best thing about this, my favourite bridge, is the sign affixed to the toll booth. Suspension bridges have an alarming tendency to sway to synchronised movements, known as ‘synchronous lateral excitation’, a modern example was a little over a decade ago when the Millennium Bridge opened and a pronounced wobble was produced by pedestrians when they walked across. For Albert Bridge, nicknamed ‘The Trembling Lady’ by the Victorians for its swaying tendencies, the only modifications have been the suspension members which were overhauled by London sewers architect Sir Joseph Bazalgette who in 1884 overhauled the suspension members, a modification which didn’t manage to correct its lateral sway.

This brings us neatly back to the sign which local well educated wags have altered giving generations of schoolboys hours of mirth.

“All troops must break step wind when marching over this bridge”.

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11 November 2011 3:35 PM

Stopping dead cats flying

You are sitting in your deckchair enjoying the sun when from next door a ball is kicked into your garden. Annoying? Just think of what it must have been like for George Augustus Henry Cavendish, 1st Earl of Burlington – Lord George Cavendish to his friends – to have oyster shells (the takeaway food of the day)  landing on his head, along with apple cores, empty bottles and the occasional dead cat, thrown over his garden wall from the adjacent alleyway.

The garden wall was the western boundary of his palatial London home which for modesty’s sake was only called Burlington House, and is the home of the Royal Academy.After much thought on how to resolve the detritus conundrum he came upon the brilliant idea to turn this alley into a shopping mall, making it one of the world’s earliest. Completed in 1819 these tiny shops remained virtually unchanged until an upper story was added in 1906 creating a series of rooms which prompted one wag to remark “they were let to the better sort of courtesan”. These ladies would use these small rooms as their places of work and when they saw guards coming they’d whistle to warn their pickpocket friends down below of the imminent danger. This has led to the beadles (the private police of the arcade) imposing the no whistling rule which remains to this day, sometimes with embarrassing consequences.

In the early 1980s a beadle warned a whistler asking him to refrain, the offender turned round to reveal Paul McCartney who was giving an impromptu performance from his repertoire. To cover the beadle’s embarrassment McCartney was given whistling exemption for life. He now admits to doing his Christmas shopping each year and while in the arcade gives a furtive little whistle.

Only one other alteration has been done to this Regency masterpiece, the beautiful triple-arch entrance was destroyed in 1931 for no discernable reason, but much of the Grade II-listed interior remains as it was first built by Lord Burlington nearly 200 years ago.Until now, for the new owners, having spent £104 million on the purchase, intend to carry out a £2.5 million makeover, including a new floor and lighting and incorporating art installations by Angel of the North creator Antony Gormley.

Existing shop tenants fear that the refurbishment will destroy the character and quaintness of the arcade by enlarging the units to accommodate such downmarket brands as handbag maker Lulu Guinness and cobbler Jimmy Choo.What next? Soon the beadles will drop their ban on running and carrying an open umbrella and, perish the thought, allow the builders laying the new flooring to whistle. Their song of choice will probably be “Yesterday… all my troubles seemed so far away…”

The author has been known to express an opinion whilst driving his cab – other thoughts and trivia can be found without the need to tip at 


26 October 2011 3:16 PM

Staying Erect

Samuel Johnson’s friend James Boswell had an interesting experience on Westminster Bridge. He recalled: “I picked up a strong jolly young damsel and taking her under the arm I conducted her to Westminster Bridge, and there in amour complete did I engage up in this noble edifice. The whim of doing it there with the Thames rolling below us amused me much.”

Boswell might not have had any trouble but for Big Ben it seems a case of erectile dysfunction. I have looked at it through one eye, aligned it with a lamppost, I’ve even tried viewing it upside down, but try as I might I just cannot see the list, but according to a report by London Underground Big Ben is leaning to such an extent that the tilt can now be clocked with the naked eye. The 316 ft. tower on the north side of the Houses of Parliament is correctly called the Clock Tower, but known colloquially as Big Ben – the name given to the great bell that it houses. The clock is the largest four-faced chiming clock in the world and surmounts the tower which is founded on a 49 ft. square 9.8 ft. thick concrete raft sunk to a depth of 13 ft. below ground level.

You would have thought with foundations like that the tower would be stable but it is sinking unevenly into the ground causing it to lean toward the northwest, and as a consequence the movement has resulted in the formation of cracks in the walls and ceilings of parts of the House of Commons.

Engineers claim that if you stand on Parliament Square and look east, toward the river, you can see that the tower is not vertical. As with so many things it’s the MPs that are to blame, the construction of their underground car park in the early 70s started it and an extension of the London Underground Jubilee Line didn’t help. But what has accelerated the movement to 0.9mm per year was the digging of the deepest hole in Britain during the construction of the new Parliament Square tube station and the construction above it of Portcullis House, again building work for the benefit of our MPs.

If the tower continues its slide towards the river in about 4,000 years it will compete with the Leaning Tower of Pisa which lurches 12ft from the vertical. By then anyone who should feel the desire to follow James Boswell’s example of amorous exploits upon Westminster Bridge would be well advised to find an alternative hunting ground.

The author has been known to express an opinion whilst driving his cab – other thoughts and trivia can be found without the need to tip at