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Lazing on a Sunny Afternoon

6 October 2013
Ben Pentreath
38 Comments

I woke up this morning with a rare thought. I sort of had nothing to do. I mean, there’s a ton of stuff on my list, but I decided that most of it could wait.

I was back in London for the weekend after what had been a very sad afternoon on Dorset on Thursday – the funeral of one of my neighbours, in the little church. Almost too much to bear, but an amazing number of people were there to pay respects to Annette Hallett… with probably 50 or so having to stand outside the church by the time I arrived, at the last minute, from the train. The rain had lifted, the sun was shining across the valley, and the churchyard had never been filled with greater meaning, and sadness, for me at that moment. It was a beautiful but very sad service. Annette had been a champion bowler, and as the superb eulogy read by one of her bowling colleagues concluded: ‘Well played, Annette’.

Later that evening the church gleamed in the autumn sunshine, and the valley was incredibly still and quiet, and in the middle of the night, there was a huge thunderstorm.

I came back up to London on Saturday morning to clear my mind, and to get on with a few errands.

This morning I woke early to a golden sunrise. Silver aeroplane trails were weaving across the sky.

I had no plans. My friend Maria, who lives down the road from the office, on Lambs Conduit Street, is thinking of a move to Primrose Hill. She’s away right now, but I thought it’s been an age since I’ve been up there and it would make a nice bike ride by myself in the sunshine.

London was sparkling. It’s at moments like this that I realise how much I love this sprawling, messy, in-parts-beautiful-in-others-ugly city of ours.

Mundane buildings were being transformed into architecture in the brilliant sunshine.

On Tavistock Square, Lutyens’s British Medical Association facade is far from mundane.

The sunshine was so beautiful I decided to chain my bike up and move a little more slowly, on foot, the better to enjoy the small details.

For starters…there was something up in Tavistock Square Gardens.

A group of cyclists taking part in some sort of rally in front of the Gandhi Memorial.

The speaker turned out to be the civil rights campaigner Peter Tatchell.  One minute they were there. The next, they were all off, on their bikes. I wonder what they were up to?

Gandhi calmly watched over proceedings.

It is remarkable how there are always bunches of fresh flowers left there.

One of the nicest things about Bloomsbury/Fitzrovia (I must have said this before) is the omnipresent but kind appearance of the Post Office tower, popping out from behind a roofline at unexpected moments, its tremendous scale always something of a surprise. I really love this building.

I went round the back of Burton Place to enjoy the back of Lutyens’ facade, for me (and I am sure for others), infinitely more powerful and interesting than the front.  One of these days, if I find the energy, I want to write a blog called Back to Front. Have you noticed how often the rear facades of buildings are the best? Examples on a postcard, please…

I dipped into the back of St. Pancras Church, to have a better look at its severe, austere, beautiful Greek Revival style.

If you screwed up your eyes you could imagine you had discovered a temple deep in English parkland.

Reality was a little less salubrious. We are on the Euston Road, one of London’s busiest and most polluted thoroughfares, the boundary of the Congestion charge zone and in places little more than a 4-lane dual carriageway lined with grim buildings.

(I had to wait for that pink taxi, the only redeeming feature).

I seem to spend a lot of time on the Euston Road, though, when I am somewhat reluctantly heading in and out of London by car, and I’ve got to admit, I’m not un-fond of it (if that’s not a tautology). One of these days I will do a blog about it, and you will all wish I’d spent the weekend in Dorset in my flower garden and written about that instead.

Just across the road, of course, is the extraordinary Arts & Crafts Euston Road Fire Station, designed in 1902 by the Canadian architect Percy Nobbs. There are one or two traffic lights on the Euston and Marylebone Roads that I’m very glad to be held at on my way home. One is on the the corner of Regent’s Park and Albany Street, where you can enjoy Soane’s Holy Trinity Church – I think, one of his most beautiful buildings. And the other is here. I love this zany Fire Station, with its little outcrops and balconies.

Do you see what I mean? I’d like to get into that strange narrow all-glazed room. If you’re a Euston Road fireman, or can otherwise arrange access, could you let me know?

Meanwhile, have you ever stopped to enjoy Euston Station?

The two pavilions I am sure you might know, with their quoins engraved with the names of every destination from Euston Station, arranged alphabetically.

Of course, they are now bars, which I don’t think I mind too much, even if it does mean recycling bins and crates of beer outside.

They flank the Euston war memorial, surely one of the most beautiful in London, designed by Reginald Wynn.

You wouldn’t mind so much if it wasn’t used as bus roundabout… although, to be fair, I think it’s been a roundabout from day one.

I am not sure the sculptor, I am sure someone will, but the statues are wonderful.

Just opposite, there is a fig tree.

In full fig, as it were.

I wonder how that got there? Like being in Italy, for a moment.

Euston Station is very controversial, of course, because of the loss of the great Euston Arch, which many are campaigning to have restored.

I understand where they are coming from, and several of the organisers of the Euston Arch campaign are friends of mine. But for some reason, I’m a bit more circumspect. For me, strangely, once something has gone it is possibly time not to mourn, but to adjust and work harder for the next thing that’s important.

It’s also fair to say that even by the turn of the century the old station was congested and not working. Plans to remove it and reconstruct were mooted in the 20s and 30s but were stopped by the war.

Not many people like modern Euston, of course.  According to its Wikipedia entry, Richard Morrison stated in The Times that “even by the bleak standards of Sixties architecture, Euston is one of the nastiest concrete boxes in London: devoid of any decorative merit; seemingly concocted to induce maximum angst among passengers; and a blight on surrounding streets. The design should never have left the drawing-board — if, indeed, it was ever on a drawing-board. It gives the impression of having been scribbled on the back of a soiled paper bag by a thuggish android with a grudge against humanity and a vampiric loathing of sunlight”.

Hmm. Well, deep down, I rather love the modern Euston Station. When I first came back to London, 10 years ago, I was working for the Prince’s Foundation on a few projects in places that meant I was often catching a train from Euston.  And I got to spend a lot of time there, and with one or two delayed trains, there was time to stop, and look.  There’s a lot about it I like.

Not, perhaps, what you’d expect to find me writing – but there’s something about this as a building that is raw, and impressive, and powerful, a single vast concourse with a broad uncluttered concrete ceiling floating as if by magic on a single line of clerestory windows.

You have to look up to see the original building. Lower down, like so many station and airport buildings, it’s just been ruined by 50 years of tat, layers and layers of burger joints and sandwich kiosks and  bad signs and rubbish information booths and poor maintenance.

I don’t mind the chaos, I love a bustling railway station, but the whole place needs a damn good edit and it would be amazing. I am happy that the plans of a few years back to demolish and rebuild Euston Station have been dropped. It would probably be too much to hope that High Speed 2 (who I think are in charge) might hire an architect who understands big 1960s buildings and how to make them beautiful again.

The station may not be everyone’s cup of tea but there’s something there to be looked after now, I think.

I don’t even mind the second phase, built, I think, in the late 70s; the forecourt and three large towers designed I believe by Richard Seifert who undoubtedly did more to change the skyline of London than anyone else in the 20th century. But Siefert’s buildings, for me, have a dignity and calmness to them that is missing in so much of the frenetic individuality of today’s efforts. You’ll see what I mean in a minute.

The austere, black polished stone, south facade is permanently enlivened by a constant line of red London buses in the bus concourse.

The pub tucked into the bus station is the only lingering memory of the station’s former Victorian glory.

The statue of Robert Stephenson, the engineer, has stood in a few locations around and about the station. Now it is the concourse out front. Incidentally that guy was covered head to toe in tattoos. Well, the statue used to sit in the old Victorian Ticket Hall.

Well, yes, I can sort of see why some people miss the old Euston Station.

Just up the road is an old disused tube building. On a door is this sign. Goodness.

I didn’t approach.

At the end of the road are these buildings. Do you see what I mean by junk? By lack of dignity?

Gross. You know, I’m really beginning to appreciate concrete brutalism when I look at all the CRAP which is filling up my city these days. At least brutalism was, well, serious.

The backlands of Euston Station are full of all sorts of strange buildings.

The Maintenance Delivery Unit Power Signal Box.

For instance.

If I was a very modernist architect I think i’d get a bit of a thrill about designing vast grey brick facades with two rows of slit windows in them.

What is the AREA S&T ENGINEERS STORE?

It’s crazy out there.

I don’t approve of these I’m afraid. We really did do a bad line in tower block didn’t we? Even in the sunshine they look dreadful, and let’s face it, what will these futile primary colours look like in the rain? Geddit?!? Clever architect. Let’s design one building with blue trim, one building with red trim, and a third with yellow trim. Give me a fucking break. This is pathetic. Lucky they didn’t need a fourth tower (I guess, it would have been green). Whoever thought this was a good idea should be shot.

Neither do I approved of the demolition of a row of Regency Terraced houses to make way for what is now an Addison Lee used-car sales lot. Well, one must pray this was bomb damage or something. But I bet you it wasn’t.   As I say, the backlands of Euston are weird, and I suspect this will be something to do with the railway. That’s Mornington Crescent just beyond.

On the other hand, I do approve of this giant granite ‘Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association’ trough in the crescent, now rather soulfully used  as a planter.

The Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association is still in existence. Who knew?

Much of this part of Camden feels like a building site, but not in the same way as Notting Hill, or Chelsea, or Islington, where you sometimes get the impression that every house is ending up with a 3 storey-below-ground-basement, and a door painted Farrow & Ball Ball Green with brushed-stainless-steel numbers in large-scaled Gill Sans and oversized chrome door furniture.

I can guarantee that sort of work’s not at place in Mornington Crescent. Thank god.

I love a side elevation of a terrace with one door and a lot of completely impossible blank windows in it.

And I love the wastelands at the back of Mornington Crescent.  Around the corner, there’s a perfect colour scheme: blue, and blue and blue. Normally, these days, you don’t get the pleasure of this sort of paint job outside of Wales or Cumbria.

Around the corner, on Albert Street, a terrace of houses so funky that I either think you are 80 years old or a subscriber to *wallpaper magazine if you live here. Cool.

Dusty leafy lovely Camden Town.

Crossing the Mornington Street bridge over the vast run of railway lines that run north from Euston, you arrive at John Nash’s Regency cottages of Park Village East.  You might even say: *Normal Service of Ben’s Blog commences here*.

Park Village East flanks the eastern edge of The Regent’s Park which I wrote about a little while ago here.  A short walk north, you see the perfect Picturesque moment of houses, trees, and the water of the Regent’s Canal (which, let us face it, could similarly provide a blog of its own)…

And then, you arrive in the ice-cream villas of Primrose Hill. Bliss:

Each house to me is like an illustration in a children’s book, perhaps by Ardizzone.

I was happy to chance upon the Primrose Hill Studios, tucked off Fitzroy Road.

Well, I thought one of these might suit Maria, until I find on an estate agent’s website that they rent for £2,100 per week (1 bedroom).

More ice-cream colours, and a view of Primrose Hill at the end of the street:

One of the things which fascinates me about my work with housing development today is people’s fear of repetition.  You can’t make one house just like the next. Here’s a whole (beautiful) street of repetition… 9 houses on each side of the road which are identical.  It would be a big task today to persuade a housebuilder to do something so… easy.

Chalcot Crescent drifts around the corner.

I enjoyed seeing this house, owned by scrapey-scrapey people who had painted their windows a beautiful pea-green and their door a handsome oxblood red. I suspect they have walls hung with Peter Hone plasters and I definitely suspect they (or one of their friends) read this blog.

The bike-frame-front-door-colour-combo was almost a little much to bear.

From there up to Regent’s Park Road, which was about as beautiful as you can get on a sunny Sunday morning.

I love all these Nissan Figaro’s driving around today’s blog.

I could have dropped in to beautiful, perfect, Primrose Hill books for a browse…

…but let’s face it.  The weather was too beautiful, and anyway I like to buy all my books, at about 1am, having drunk a bottle of wine, on amazon (okay, publishing people, I know you’ll hate me, but I buy a LOT more books, especially heavy architecture ones, when it becomes the postman’s job to carry them home).

And then, I bought my sandwich, and headed to Primrose Hill itself, and lay in the sunshine, and drank in the most beautiful view in the whole of London… spires rising above the forest trees of Regent’s Park.

…the black towers are Euston Station. Okay, okay. You may not love them, but how much more restrained and elegant than Rafael Viñoly’s hideous ‘Walkie-Talkie’ (to the left of the picture). For reasons I can’t quite put my finger on, I’m open minded on the Shard (to the right). But really…. St Paul’s…. hello?   Kind of perfect… a bit of an affront to everything that surrounds it.

See what I mean? I hate the Walkie fucking talkie.

But London, I’ve said it before. Whatever happens, I love you.

38 comments on this post

Mike Pinchensays:

A hose drying facility was incorporated in a shaft that rose from adjacent to the kitchen to a lantern light on the west side of the roof. This facility was made redundant with the erection of a steel lattice tower with hose drying hoists in 1922.

Alexsays:

The house with the bike is Alans house, he still owns the one on Gloucester Cres (where the lady in the van lived) but rents it out.
Top photogs of Camden and Primrose!

LYNNsays:

I too am an ex Primrose Hill resident – #4 Chalcot Square to be exact, from 1943 through 1953, and with grandparents who lived at 32 Gloucester Crescent from 1951 through the late 1960s.

I left Canada in 1957 and went back for the first time in 1999. I was stunned and chuffed to see that the old neighbourhood had not deteriorated as I had wondered it might but instead was bright and beautiful!

If anyone has a good photo of 32 Gloucester Crescent, I would be delighted to have a copy as the one I took was “not so good”.

I loved all the photos of the area that are in this blog.

Lynn

Jutisays:

I feel like I’ve just taken a lovely morning walk in London. Thank you!

Camilla Urquhartsays:

Re: a previous comment, the “scrapey, scrapey people’s house” is not Alan Bennett’s house, unless he has moved since when I lived nearby in Gloucester Crescent. His wonderful house is set back from the road with a front garden, walls and foliage offering it some privacy from the road, with darker green windows and doors, as you turn into Gloucester Crescent from Inverness Street in Camden.

Ben, I really like your blog and agree with you on the architecture. So fun tooling around London with you. I’ve never gotten to Primrose. It’s definitely on my list for next time.
Have a lovely week!

Karinsays:

Oi Ben, lay off my building! I don’t think it’s mundane, even on winter days. When I moved in I thought it was very ugly indeed but after cleaning and years spent there, I am fond of it. It’s got some Portland stone! It’s Grade 2 listed and I believe the architect was George Val Myer, who also worked on Broadcasting House. For the truly mundane try looking opposite at the National Hotel – the largest hotel in Europe, a monstrosity; what gem of a terrace might have stood there once!

Tomsays:

I’m glad it’s not just me that hates the walkie talkie.

mccsays:

Mundane buildings…a brilliant shot.

Sharonsays:

Dear Ben, have just read through your post about a bike trip from Bloomsbury to Primrose Hill. I live off Chalk Farm Road and regularly make the trip down to your shop. I walk through the back of all these places too and agree, the back of some of these buildings are often the best. My favourite thing is to find a road or a building that I never knew was there. London always surprises. The scrappy, scrappy house in primrose hill with the bike outside is Alan Bennett’s. Happy meanderings!

Rascalsays:

I think everyone is over the Walkie Talkie. OVER. Over I say. OVER. Not least of all the hapless passers-by who were incinerated this summer. OVER. Tear it down. OVER. Roger that. OVER.

Nicolasays:

Enjoyed the mini tour of London. Thoroughfares like Euston Road we just have to accept, but isn’t it a pity that historic streets all have their “girdle” of cars. I imagine in your profession you have to give quite a lot of thought to parking not one but several cars to suit modern needs. I agree with your remarks on repetition. You cannot have too much of a genuinely good thing. Viz: your blog!

Richardsays:

A little late, but for beautiful natural wallcoverings try Phillip Jeffries Ltd in the US.

Such a splendid tour of the old country bringing back bittersweet memories.
Excellent fodder for a nostalgic ex-pat.

Davidsays:

I’m worried about your flirtation with the raw concrete mass, – all woven together with artful seriousness, of course – that constitutes 60s brutalism. However, Nash’s Regency cottages, and your snaps of Primrose hill, are sublime.

Ben, your opening sentence will be on my tongue Saturday morning next, after my art exhibit opens on Friday night, Oct 11. Fruit of 7 months’ intense work. Woo-hoo!!

Condolences on the loss of your neighbor. She sounds like someone who will be missed. You also answered one of my own questions, which is whether the church was a “ruin” or in use. How nice to know it is indeed a living building. Are any of your country neighbors shocked to find their parsonage occupied by a “flamboyant” personage who drops F-bombs from time to time? Speaks in the key of F-sharp? Oh, I do love the various euphemisms for the F-word. Though these days, I find, a walk past any university sports field will convince one that the language has assimilated it, just as it did “damn” in another era. So…what will be the next taboo word? The mind boggles.

This current post is exceptionally rich in observations and instruction, as well as visuals, for which I can’t thank you enough. I haven’t been in London since, oh, about 1997? And it’s so nice to have you conduct us on our own up-close and personal tour.

‘Til later,

Diane
xo

Steven Zicksays:

Love the potty-mouthed tone in this week’s post! Come to Chicago soon, where there are similar contrasts between horrific and heavenly in the architectural mix. Our Gandhi statue is also regularly banked with floral tributes–usually marigolds or other Indian-ish flowers–so pretty. thanks for this week’s post.

I’m glad someone else calls it the Post Office Tower and not the GPO tower, or whatever iteration it’s currently stranded in. I used to love it too, stamping around Fitzroy when I lived there. Popping out at you from odd angles. Now it’s the Opera House in Sydney, which has the same habit of surprising you through palm trees, or between two concrete and purple housing commission blocks of flats.

As for repetition, I personally am fascinated by it. But I suppose it depends on what’s being repeated. Little boxes, little boxes, all made out of ticky tacky – repetition of those can be scary indeed.

Joanna Plantsays:

i love it when you rant BP

Mornington Crescent actually exists?

Brilliant post! Thanks so much for taking me back to so many places that I knew well!

Bath is perfect for backs-of-houses appeal – something about the classically simple Georgian houses at the front where you are not allowed to paint or change the door furniture or even have hanging baskets, but at the back each one has been extended and mashed about differently so each has it’s own uniqueness. Marlborough Buildings, Rivers Street and the Circus are great examples.

Debbiesays:

Brilliant post – but I have been worrying all the way through – did you get your bike back? And what are scrapey-scrapey people?

Camden and Primrose Hill, my old stamping ground! I too am an alumnus of the Prince of Wales’s Institute of Architecture. I do miss those stucco buildings on Gloucester Gate. I’m not sure which I prefer the ice-cream coloured stucco or the ‘scrapey-scrapey’….

Davidsays:

Did you write this post between ordering late-night books on Amazon Ben? The tone seems a little… fevered in places! Agree with you about Euston Station, it always makes me think of the Neue National Galerie in Berlin (or is it me getting fevered now?!). Nice post.

Linda Gearysays:

A great post! Being from Yorkshire my trips to London are few and far between and usually hectic. Thanks for showing the bits that I always miss and don’t have time to see.

Frannysays:

Thank you – wonderful to follow you around London. A joy

Ullasays:

Thank you so much for all these wonderful pictures and the inspiring text. London is my all time favorite city. I have been visiting for almost 30 years and always find something new and interesting to enjoy. And yes, London by foot is the best . . .

Ulla
a weekly reader from Denmark

Thank you. This is a glorious post.

Barbarasays:

After 12 years away from London, paging down your blog is as good a shot in the arm as I’ll ever need. It’s still my favourite city for all the same reasons. Glad others see it like that, too

Annsays:

I just returned to NJ after 10 days (mostly) in London, where I spent a good part of every day walking around and photographing the street scenes and architecture. Unfortunately a lot less sun and I do not have your eye, but I am working in developing that. This was a lovely post – thank you for sharing your sunny Sunday in the city.

Maisiesays:

Like onto people’s heads…

Maisiesays:

The red, blue and yellow towers at Mornington Crescent weren’t always red, blue and yellow. Re-clad some years back. I seem to remember that bits of it dropped off.

josays:

gorgeous, beautiful london.

Lucysays:

How lovely to see so much of London through your eyes. The statues outside Euston are by Wynn Owen, the chance to see those beautiful bowed heads is the only good reason to sit on a bus in Euston

Keeleysays:

‘When you are tired of London you are tired of life’ – I cannot wait to retire to London and your gorgeous pics underline why!

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