My kinda town (number one)

There may be not number two but just in case… This is number one. Well, actually it is number two really since I posted on a church in Brick Lane back at the end of June but counting is boring. Sorry, let’s start again….

I’ve said before that I love my adopted city, London (adopted in 1979 when it was smutty, people smoked in train carriages which were the only ones where you could sit, buses had conductors and you could jump on and off, there was no Jubilee line, Canary Wharf wasn’t even a figment of someone’s imagination, Arsenal were ‘Boring, Boring… hmm some things…). It has many failings just as often as  it has successes. One success is how it holds onto its history, its odd little curios at the same time as changing constantly to accommodate the needs of a world city. The tension is painful at times but, more often than ,creative.

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view on the viaduct of the city griffin

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another beastie with one of the staircase buildings behind

This came to mind last Thursday when I met a friend for lunch and found myself on Holborn Viaduct. I’ve been under it and across it countless times. I remember a wine cellar under it (or to one side) back in the 1990s and the best sausage shop in London a block away – sadly now long closed. Bubbs, a few yards away, was a French restaurant we patronised as young lawyers in the early 80s when a  partner was paying and round the corner, part of Smithfield Market the Fox and Anchor provided the articled clerk initiation lunch – which, if I’m honest, was a form of culinary bullying. And just along the road of the same name was Holborn Viaduct station, one of London’s lost stations. It was a curious nothing of a station, a bit like Broad Street and to an extent Marylebone (the former has gone, making way for the Broadgate office development, the latter hangs on). It serviced the commuter belt to the south and east, rather than some far flung city so had an end of the line (a literal and metaphorical) feel to it. Nothing glamorous, almost fictional, not even room for a coffee shop or loo. It was made more curious when the Snow Hill railway tunnel reopened in 1986. Up to that point, at least since 1971, if you wanted to cross London north south or east west you had to decant at a terminus, King’s Cross, say, and catch the tube then reboard at Victoria, for example. Why is closed in the 70s heaven knows  (I think I heard something about the different track gauges north and south, which meant it was impossible to run trains right through – no idea if that is true). Having reopened and created the Thameslink, the appetite was whetted and Holborn Viaduct station (which sat immediately adjacent to the entrance to the tunnel) was doomed. A new line was built, City Thameslink station opened and new glossy stations and platforms were created at Blackfriars (on a bridge across the river – there are more solar panels there than pretty much anywhere in London I should guess), Farringdon and St Pancras. A shame. For all it’s 1950s lack of taste there was something about waiting on the platforms at Holborn Viaduct that took you back to movies between the wars – to Richard Hanney escaping a dastardly plot or Trevor Howard meeting his amour. Bring back the trilby I say.

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guarding the edge

But through all this the Viaduct has remained a constant and, if I’m honest, passed me by as I passed it by.

Which is sad.

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down the Fleet, towards the river at Blackfriars

Because it is a glorious thing. An oddity, stuck so close to the centre and adorned with statues of fabulous Britannia-esque women and exotic mythical creatures. It feels a little like something out of Ghostbusters (you remember that building housing a set of melodramatic ghouls that are come to life, controlled by an evil deity with possesses Sigourney Weaver – I think I’m possibly fantasising again).

The reason it’s there is because of the Fleet River, which gave its name to Fleet Street , the Street of Shame (which title was earned when it played host to The Daly Express, the Telegraph, the News of The World and Sun and just behind them the Daily Mail, but which is probably still apt as it is now dominated by Goldman Sacs and a certain law firm of which I was once part). The Fleet was once an important river; nearby were wells, too, originally said to have healing properties, but by and by this area became  poor and polluted so much so that it was the home of prisons  such as the notorious Fleet Prison (probably most famous for housing Mr Pickwick in Dickens’ Pickwick Papers). The Fleet river has pretty much gone, culverted out of existence (there is a sewer outfall that is all that remains of it, under Blackfriars bridge), but it created the steep banks that left the dip that had to be bridged.

Between 1863 and 1869, at a cost of £2 million, the Viaduct across what is now Farringdon Road was created. The City Surveyor, William Haywood, was the architect and this new, glorious example of Victorian Public architecture was opened, along with Blackfriars Bridge, by Queen Victoria.

Two Million smackers. In 1863. That’s pretty gross for a little bridge over another road. And four staircases. Really? Why build a rather insignificant road bridge in so completely and utterly an o.t.t. way? To whom exactly were the sponsors trying to say ‘Hey, f+++ you, Jimmy – look on my VIA-sodding-DUCT and despair’. Heaven knows. No Office for Budget responsibility, no Committee for scrutiny of public spending. Just a ridiculous sense of its own importance, a feeling that if the Romans had an Empire then we British had an EMPIRE and, boy were we going to show it. At much the same time the Victorians were spending three million pounds to build a comprehensive sewerage system under the direction of Joseph Bazalgette (the great-great something of the brains behind the reality TV hit Big Brother which shows sewerage must be in that family’s genes), whose ingenious design and foresight in over-engineering the whole thing means we still use his self same system today.

Still, spend it they did and this is the result. I suppose I’m quite pleased looking back but had I been scrimping a living in the region of the Fleet back then I might have thought rather differently.

These are the statues that sit astride the Viaduct, celebrating Science, Fine Arts, Agriculture and Commerce.

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Fine Arts

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Science; dinky hat

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and just to be different, side on for Commerce

So there you have it. One bridge, glorious in its pretentions and worth spending a few moments pondering the passage of time as you lean on the balustrade and look towards the Thames as it flows under Blackfriars Bridge, a half mile to the south. It seems peaceful enough but remember, on 18th June 1982, the disgraced banker, Roberto Calvi was found hanging from scaffolding under the bridge, having been embroiled in the collapse of ‘God’s Bank’. Somehow these things are never as they seem.

About TanGental

My name is Geoff Le Pard. Once I was a lawyer; now I am a writer. I've published several books: a four book series following Harry Spittle as he grows from hapless student to hapless partner in a London law firm; four others in different genres; a book of poetry; four anthologies of short fiction; and a memoir of my mother. I have several more in the pipeline. I have been blogging regularly since 2014, on topic as diverse as: poetry based on famous poems; memories from my life; my garden; my dog; a whole variety of short fiction; my attempts at baking and food; travel and the consequent disasters; theatre, film and book reviews; and the occasional thought piece. Mostly it is whatever takes my fancy. I avoid politics, mostly, and religion, always. I don't mean to upset anyone but if I do, well, sorry and I suggest you go elsewhere. These are my thoughts and no one else is to blame. If you want to nab anything I post, please acknowledge where it came from.
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10 Responses to My kinda town (number one)

  1. Norah says:

    What a fascinating part of the history, including your role in it! 🙂


  2. Charli Mills says:

    That’s just fabulous writing! By the time I finished reading your Fringe posts, you had rekindled my long, overdue desire to step foot on British soil. I will see this VIA-sodding-DUCT and rejoice in what I now know about it!


    • TanGental says:

      I love it when you find a spot, which maybe seems quite ordinary and yet it reveals an unexpected depth. You do it all the time with the intros to your prompts. It’s the writing equivalent of watching a sniffer dog climb over luggage looking for some weed… Charli Mills – half sleuth, half bloodhound… I bet Disney could commission a treatment for a new cartoon!


  3. restlessjo says:

    Was it always painted red, Geoff? I thought I had memories of it being black, but then, my memory’s pretty faulty these days. My first address in London was Helen Graham House- hostel accommodation directly opposite the British Museum. Holborn was most definitely part of my stamping ground. I had a favourite ‘stand up’ Italian for when I was in need of a square meal (lasagna, of course 🙂 ) Thanks for the memories.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Jo’s Monday walk : Rievaulx Abbey | restlessjo

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