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List 16: Run 256
Parliament Square, SW1 to Golden Lane, EC1
The IRA has started a campaign to bomb mainland Britain to force us into acquiescing to their demands for a united Ireland and have detonated bombs on numerous occasions in London. A ‘Ring of Steel’ now surrounds The City, and yet sitting on my little bike with its clipboard firmly attached to the handlebars I might as well be invisible.
Riding around Parliament Square the police guarding the Palace of Westminster hardly give me a second look, as do fellow Londoners. It’s only the tourists flocking to photograph this Victorian masterpiece who give me a quizzical look, trying to fathom the purpose of my frequent stops whilst taking notes.
In front of me is Westminster Hall, by far the oldest of this complex of legislative buildings. The Hall’s colossal hammer-beam roof made from oak trees whose acorns sprouted into life during the 6th Century when the Vikings were plundering our Islands.
In 1913 when several major roof timbers had to be replaced, it presented conservationists with a major headache. England’s oak woods had long ago been felled to build ships to fight the Spanish and French and they could not find oak trees mature enough to provide the right sort of timber. Then someone had the bright idea of checking where the original timbers had come from, which it transpired was the Courthorpe family from Wadhurst in Sussex and a descendant, Sir George Courthorpe MP, still owned the estate.
When approached, he explained that when the original trees had been cut and sold to the King in 1399, the Courthorpe family thought that the time would come when the timbers would need repair, so they planted a new stand of oak trees specifically for that purpose. Those trees were now ready and were duly cut down and used to repair the great roof of Westminster Hall.
On a cold April night, some eight years after completing this run and after gaining my green badge, at two in the morning, I would join the back of a queue snaking across Lambeth Bridge patiently waiting to pay their respects as the Queen Mother lay in state upon a catafalque, with members of the armed forces at each corner, below the hammer-beam roof of this ancient building.
Behind me, as I sit on my bike, on the north-east corner of Parliament Square is the statue of Winston Churchill, at the spot designated by the great statesman.
During the sculpting of this, my favourite London statue, it was suggested to the artist Ivor Roberts Jones that pins be inserted into the great man’s crown to stop birds alighting upon his head. Fortunately, the idea was scrapped, though I like to think he would have looked like a punk rocker had the plan gone ahead. Instead, urban myth has it that a low voltage electric current now passes through the work of art which serves the same purpose.
Turning left into Victoria Embankment passing what must be the biggest hole in Christendom. I would later discover that a new Westminster Station was being constructed, and Portcullis House, the most expensive building per square foot ever constructed in England, was to be erected above this cavernous hole.
The engineering would cause Big Ben, now renamed the Elizabeth Tower, to lean precariously one-a-half foot from perpendicular. Ironically should it fall, it would land on the very building that brought about its demise, and the politicians who exclusively occupy Portcullis House.
Because of its meandering, this short ride alongside the Thames is actually in a northerly direction, and not east as one might suppose.
At the junction with Northumberland Avenue is the Liberal Club. Once this whole block was their political powerhouse, now the club only occupies only a fraction of this large building.
A well-told tale of the club in its hay-day involved Conservative politician F. E. Smith who would stop off there every day on his way to Parliament, to use the club’s lavatories. One day the hall porter apprehended Smith and asked him if he was actually a member of the club, to which Smith replied “Good God! You mean it’s a club as well?”
The National Liberal Club was at the half-way point between Parliament and Smith’s chambers in Elm Court, Temple. The comment was a jibe at the brown tiles in some of its late-Victorian architecture.
There are many statues to great engineers along this stretch of the Thames, all to be faithfully recorded on my clipboard for future reference: Samuel Plimsoll who gave his name to the safety line painted around British ships’ hulls; Sir Joseph Bazalgette, the Bankment’s designer; but it is Isambard Kingdom Brunel, arguably Britain’s greatest civil engineer that is hard to miss.
Turning away from the River at Temple Place his statue has been given an amusing addition. Students from the nearby King’s College have discovered its sculptor Baron Carlo Marochetti thoughtfully has given the builder of the Great Western Railway a head that perfectly fits a traffic cone. So there he stands, the brilliant Victorian engineer wearing the symbol of today’s poorly managed projects perched upon his head.
On my right is the David of Cabbie’s Green Shelters fighting off the Goliath of corporate business.
In the 1960s developers knocked down four ancient streets running down to Temple Place to allow for a hotel to be built, presumably so American tourists could see just the sort of roads they had destroyed. When the hotel reached completion the architects were amazed to find that just at the spot they’d planned to put their grand hotel entrance there was a Cabbie’s Green Shelter.
With typical corporate stupidity, they tried to use their financial might to have the shelter removed by the authorities, but they were told that the shelter had been there since 1880 and was staying put.
With the image of their rich American visitors being greeted by a ramshackle old shelter they were forced to beg for its removal. So, for a price, the shelter was duly moved a few yards down the hill away from the hotel’s lobby.
The green shelter is still there, but the hotel has since closed. Now apartments, with the imaginatively named moniker Arundel Great Court incorporating another ubiquitous new hotel are being constructed, who no doubt, after losing their private pathway to the South Bank, via the abandoned Green Bridge, will attempt to remove the Green Shelter eyesore.
Negotiating around the Aldwych one-way system I’m soon riding down Fleet Street, once the centre of England’s newspaper industry, only the Beano is now published in this most famous of roads.
Turning left into Fetter Lane I should check out the newly erected statue of John Wilkes said to be so realistic it includes his squint, the only statue in England showing this optical condition. Given the accolade of ’the ugliest man in England’, he also was said to have a protruding jaw, dropsical ugliness, and a pug-jawed appearance. His spectacular drunkenness has not been reproduced standing upon his plinth striking a frankly rather camp pose.
I’m close to the end of the run passing alongside Smithfield Meat Market and moving towards the Barbican. The last time I was in the area, this place was the biggest bomb site I’d ever seen. Once called Cripplegate, the centre of London’s rag trade, after the Blitz, it was almost destroyed. By 1951 only 48 people lived here.
In the early 1960s, a supplier of ours was situated on its outskirts, and I remember a colleague pointing out the only building remaining amongst a sea of rubble. It was the fire station where his father had worked during those terrifying days.
Now to my amazement, the vast Barbican Estate has filled the void. Travelling into the Beech Street tunnel I turn into Golden Lane, my destination, and where a Victorian school once stood which I had attended, before its demolition to make way for the Brutalist Architecture.