Scraping the surface

13 October 2013
Ben Pentreath

Drama on Rugby Street. On Friday, I got a message from the shop that sink holes were opening up in the street. What?!

I think I’d vaguely been aware that re-surfacing works had been planned. They were due to happen, starting on Friday, for a couple of days.  We were even rather looking forward to having some smart new tarmac about the place.

The road-scraping lorry turned up and scraped off the top of the road, ready for the asphalt lorry to come and deliver a massive load of new tarmac to put over the top.

But as it was delivering, something went wrong. The road gave way, and the lorry sank into the ground, somewhere between Maggie’s shop and our other neighbours Thornback & Peel.

The driver quickly took action and pulled out of the collapsing highway.  He re-parked the truck outside Cigala, London’s best tapas restaurant, thanking his lucky stars… and then the road really gave way. The back of the lorry disappeared into the road.

The fact is, it seems there’s a series of massive cavities under the whole street. Or should that be the hole street?

Here’s a photo Maggie sent me earlier. These are the guys outside her place.  I will try and post a photo of the Cigala hole soon.

Okay, okay, it’s not Guatemala City…

… but can I confess, I’m obsessed about sinkholes.  There’s something so… I don’t know…. elemental about what is going on here. I can spend hours surfing you tube for films of chinese ladies disappearing down sinkholes.  This is one of my favourites.

Back to Rugby Street. I got back from Suffolk this afternoon and this is what I found.

The bit under the plastic sheet is where the lorry went under.

I should say the parking is suspended.

Okay, I admit, it’s not quite Guatemala City out there. But I’m still very excited by collapsing roads.

As I looked, I began to reflect a little on the nature of time and the city.

…thinking about what is just beneath the surface.

What are we all walking on?

I should say so.

Directly across the road from us are these beautiful early Georgian houses, built in about 1710. What have these walls witnessed in 300 years?

On Wednesday, we have the opening, in our shop, of our neighbour Bobby Williams’s fantastic photographic exhibition telling the history of 18 Rugby Street, once the home of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. Please come and visit.  All are welcome.  You see what I mean about scraping the surface.

Here’s the poster (photographed in Maggie’s shop – our shutters are up on a Sunday. Sorry you can see my reflection!).

I turned the corner in to Great Ormond Street.

Home of the world famous Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children. The building above is part of the 1950s extension. In the office, I’ve got a rather wonderful book, at the end of which is some photographs of what used to stand on this site.

44 Great Ormond Street survived the war, and was demolished in the 50s to make way for the hospital expansion.  But the staircase isn’t entirely forgotten. I have recently incorporated some of these specific architectural details, which had been carefully measured in the book, into a new house I am building in the Chilterns.  Its memory lives on.

If you have a look at the Roque Map hanging on the wall of my flat, you can see the houses on the north side of Great Ormond Street…

…. with their beautiful, deep gardens, that to the north gave way to open fields and countryside. For 100 years, as London spread west, this remained the edge of the metropolis, which is a fact that – living on Lambs Conduit Street and now Queen Square, as I have done, for 10 years – I find remarkable.

Just to the west of those aristocratic, grand houses, is Powis House, built in the 1690s for the 2nd Marquess of Powis. It became the French Embassy. On 26 January 1713 it burned to the ground (blamed, we are told, by Jonathan Swift, on ‘the carelessness of the rascally French servants’). Rebuilt the next year, here is an engraving of the facade, from a brilliant little book I’ve got published by the Camden History Society:

Incredible. And now?

I love the shadow of the old street sign. This is the site of Powis House.

There is something magical for me, despite everything, in looking back at the old early Georgian houses that still line the southern side of Great Ormond Street.

I love London. I love what’s survived, I cherish what’s gone, and I’m interested why. And I’m fascinated by what’s replaced it.  It’s an amazing, unpredictable game when you start scraping the surface.

And as for the sink holes? I suspect we’ll be enduring road construction for some little time to come. I will ask Bridie to institute a special sale with immediate effect: 20% off all kitchen sink accessories (until the works are complete). Please come and visit us all soon.  I rather have the feeling that for the next few weeks: Rugby Street needs you!

19 comments on this post

OMG…upper sashes that actually function; what a concept! It’s taken us several years, but I’m happy to say we have them. I almost never open the lower sashes.

lillian sharpsays:

I hope you and your family survived the storm. Are you all okay?
Of course i love your colors.. especially living room, then dr and I’m not a fan of olive but thats okay.

Deby (in Canada)says:

Dear Ben
You never cease to surprise and delight. In this story I am amazed how calm you are while road in front of the shop sinks away to a strange place… is Bridie just as calm?
So excited I fly to London on Thursday…

Sink holes in Rugby St? It could be turning into a re-make of ‘Quatermass and the Pit’….

Amicia de Moubraysays:

I can highly recommend Ashenden (see above) it is an imaginative book and would delight anyone interested in architecture.


Dr Mead was also the first physician of the Foundling Hospital, and there is a portrait of him in their collection. Also on the site of the Great Ormond Street Hospital extension was the convent and hospital of St John and St Elizabeth which is now in St John’s Wood. The convent chapel was demolished and re-built as part of the current hospital. A very beautiful doorcase from one of the demolished houses in Great Ormond Street is now in Great James Street. No. 44 Great Ormond Street was, I seem to recall, the house of Lord Eldon who was Lord Chancellor of England. It was later used at the first Working Mens’ College. But I suspect that the holes in Rugby Street open onto vaults – I was told by a civil engineer friend who lived in Lamb’s Conduit Street that there were vaults under the roadway there which prevented the installation of cable.


I heard on Radio 4 a while back that Lewis Carroll, whose father was a vicar, was brought up in various parishes that in the nineteenth century were the location of a number of sinkholes. It’s thought that these could have been the starting point for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Perhaps the same will be true of you on Rugby Street Ben?

So I checked in today because I am sitting in Rome at our small hotel around the corner from the Pantheon, which made me think of you. No sinkholes here, but lots of bumpy cobbles and new excavations as well as juxtapositioning of ancient, old and new. I hope the work goes quickly and Rugby Street isn’t disrupted for too long.

We have an online story about drain covers.
Lots to tell about social history of the day – road archaeology – local foundries making covers piecemeal and suchlike before Highways Agency ‘custard’.
Filed under ‘quirky things’ – where else – a 15C word to describe the somewhat unusual and alternative, now sadly much overused.


What is just beneath the surface? The Borrowers!


Dear Ben, since everyone is recommending books to you, here is another, The Treasury of London’s Past, by Francis Sheppard. It’s about the founding of the Museum of London. I’ve owned a copy for about 20 yrs..since uni, God, that seems like a long time ago! It contains some really interesting old pictures of 19th century excavations in London and of some of the amazing finds that were made. Hope you can locate a copy, or I’d send you mine… unlooked at for ages, except for your sinkholes reminding me of it. A late friend of mine had an ancient glazed earthenware watering pot that was dug up when some drains were laid in the late 19th century, somewhere in London… wish I owned it! It’s in Tasmania with one of her kids. Isn’t it funny to think of the secret histories of all these fascinating things? It never ceases to amaze me how these objects travel about the globe..we have a lovely blue Roman glass vase that I bought in a junk shop here in Tassie for a few dollars, and I often wonder how it has survived since before the birth of Christ, and made its way here unscathed to the antipodes…wild! Cheers, Scott.

Paul Fentonsays:

We had a similar experience at Notting Hill Gate earlier this year, near where we live. From our perspective it was great as it cut traffic dramatically. It started with 1 JCB and 2 workmen fixing a leak on the corner and culminated with all 4 carriageways being closed for about 3 months, installation of portacabins and 4-6 digging machines. Lots of looking in holes and examining of plans by men in suits with serious expressions on their faces. Our children (3 and 6) found it all fascinating. I’m sure Thames Water, weren’t quite as excited/pleased.

Hopefully it doesn’t take as long in this case and you possibly don’t have tube lines underneath as well.

Ben, I look forward to your blog every week and always find a point of connection in your posts. This one really chimed with me. Since you already have had a few recommendations on what to read, may I add another? It’s my own book (*blushes*), a novel called ‘Ashenden’, whose theme is precisely what you are describing here — how history can be read in the story of a house. My inspiration was the real-life Basildon Park and how its changing fortunes since the eighteenth century have echoed the history of this country. It was published last year by Penguin. As authors we are expected to be active in self-promotion, which I find hard to do, but I do think you would like it!


Hi Ben, I took the opportunity to visit your shop for the first time on Friday and as I turned the corner into Rugby Street found a huddle if workmen and Maggie (although at this point I didn’t know it was Maggie!) all peering down a hole in the road that had evidently just appeared! I then some enjoyable time in Maggie’s and your shop. So it was funny to see your post this morning and The photo/photos that Maggie had said she had taken. What a delightful street and area. I found a great cafe in Lambs Conduit Street too and will surely be back soon – it’s lovely to discover another part of my city as I live not too far away – in the East at Limehouse. Thanks for another interesting post. It’s a nice way to start the week. With very best wishes.

come for the sinkholes; stay for the history. i’m learning about london, bit by bit, thanks to your posts.


Now would appear to be a good time for you to read Peter Ackroyd’s London Under: The Secret History Beneath the Streets. With all that’s down there it’s surprising more London streets don’t collapse. Seriously, the book is fascinating and fairly recently published so should be readily available.

By the way, I can’t decide which I prefer, the London posts or the country posts, and of course there is always Italy. I guess I will just have to be certain to read them all. Thank you, Ben, for this amazing blog.

Claire Howardsays:

We live in old properties and often knowing nothing of the secrets they hold, I was very fortunate to come across a book written by a former owner of our family home.The book described the house and the owners time as master of foxhounds with hounds living at the end of the garden in specially constructed kennels.The dust cover showed a picture of master and hounds painted in situ by Lionel Edwards,one of the most respected artist of horse and hounds.I feel very lucky to have come across this book by total chance.We no longer own the property.but the book I will always treasure.


Thanks for a fascinating posting (with enough material for two or three postings, maybe more!). Notwithstanding the drama of the sink holes (which are just stunning), I’m especially interested in the eighteenth-century history of Great Ormond Street since Dr. Richard Mead lived there in the 1730s and 40s (at #49, I believe — it became part of the hospital in the nineteenth century). Mead was one of the period’s most important collectors, along with being physician to George II and friends with Newton. Please include photos (if you can) of the new staircase for the project at the Chilterns.

Given your fascination with architecture and history, if you haven’t already read it you might enjoy “How Buildings Learn” by Stewart Brand (of the Whole Earth Catalog). The old Great Ormond building is wonderful but what is really breathtaking is the ironwork around the exterior. And your book showing the old building is perfect: B&W and beautiful type. As yummy as what it depicts. I am still marveling at where your post ended based on how it began. Another great BP production. How I look forward to the beginning of the week and your post.

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