London is…

templebar-c2a9-davidsecombe1(Photo ©David Secombe)

Lahndon, eh?

No matter how well you know this city, you will still get lost in Soho, you will still get lost if you ever try to go off-piste in Bethnal Green, and you can still literally turn a corner into a neighbourhood so different from where you were that you will feel lost. And that is because of London’s slow-growing organic nature (like a yeast). It was never planned.

It’s certainly lost important and beautiful parts of itself to new developments; the Aldwych & Kingsway springs to mind. Intended as a response to Haussmann’s grand Paris boulevards, it was built over a whole neighbourhood of historic streets (one of which housed the very beautiful St James Theatre, where ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ premiered), now gone forever. It’s said that the Symbolist poet Arthur Symons, when he was released after nine years in a mental institution, wandered disoriented round a London that he could, literally, no longer recognise. He’s the sad case John Betjeman wrote about decades later, sitting forlorn in the Café Royal, all his friends long dead…

So, before we all end up like Symons, here are some things to help us understand our city better. Developing technologies – from the internet itself to CGI to drones – are helping us to imagine the city in a strangely active, not to say interactive, way. Here are a few things I’ve seen that somehow showed me something new.


The London Evolution Animation is a dry-enough project – a multi-organisational partnership look at ‘street network and protected assets’. It charts, in this atmospheric film, 2,000 years of London’s expansion, evolution, building, and preservation, and is completely gripping.


Pudding Lane Productions are a group of six students who developed this tantalising film below. They produced it for a competition, best introduced by themselves, on the Pudding Lane blog:

We are six students studying Game Art Design at DeMontfort University, Leicester, all in our final year. During the latter half of our second year studies, we were invited to take part in a brand new competition set by Crytek, Gamecity and The British Library collaboratively. The competition was titled: Off the Map…

On  the 23rd of October at Gamecity in Nottingham, Pudding Lane Productions were announced as the winners of the 2013 Off The Map competition for our 3D reproduction of 17th Century London, which we had designed using reference taken from the historic maps in the British Library, and built using state-of-the art CryEngine technology.

Now, the thing is not altogether not unflawed (ref. what looks like aC18 churchyard?) – and it is definitely very ‘gamey’ – but it would be, wouldn’t it, and even so it’s powerful enough to make you feel various tuggings… and of course a bit sad.


After that, what? Time travel gains a futuristic aspect with the Victorians, who only looked forward, never back. So here we have a sort of prototype of Google Maps.  ‘Tallis’ Street Views’ (1838-40) were not just boring old normal maps, they were fold-out drawings of street elevations, ‘exhibiting upwards of one hundred buildings in each number’ – ‘the whole forming a complete stranger’s guide through London’ – &c &c.  The Museum of London website now hosts 35 of the elevations, cunningly juxtaposed with Google maps and street views, as well as the original information pages from the pamphlets, and you can navigate through them a bit via the direction buttons. Click picture for link.

Charlotte Street 1840


Of course, as well as Street-View-type maps, London’s Victorians also pioneered the world’s first underground railway. However dodgy the Tube may feel at times to ride in, just remember it was the first, and all the others everywhere learned from what they discovered through building this one. We’re all so used to Harry Beck’s iconic graphical map and the 1920s/30s branding that it’s very easy to forget how much older parts of it are, and also how it snakes through time and through the city…  here’s the Growth of the London Underground.


Okay and then there’s this. We are Baroque in Hackney, after all, and this thing made my heart leap (for a moment). It is, in fact, slightly annoying in a hipster way, starting with the frankly inexcusable exclamation mark after the quotation from Dr Johnson. It depicts a lifestyle Hackney where everyone is apparently fit and beautiful and a bit outdoorsy, and all graffiti is art graffiti, and no one is over 35, and none of those young people are suffering or poor – but the whole thing is worth it just for the opening sweep over Clissold House, which I find ineffably thrilling no matter how many times I watch it. The editing is annoyingly jumpy but that’s been a bit the case in all the drone films I’ve seen, so I wonder if it’s a limitation of the technology – and it does still remind me, watching it, how much I love Hackney. I just LOVE it, like you love a kid. It’s all just the most beautiful place in the world.

But basically I want to get a drone and make my own film. It will start with a magnificent swoop up over the most beautiful spot in the borough, which at the moment, to my mind, is the Baroque Balcony.

balcony june 25

And finally, if you were asking, ‘But what is London? I mean, like, what is it made of?’ – well – it seems largely to be made (unbelievably) of green space, and there is a movement to have it designated as the world’s first ‘National Park City’. Here’s a description of London as a national park, from the campaign website:

Uniquely combining a biodiverse landscape with nature reserves, parks and gardens, the Greater London National Park* covers an area of over 1,500 km2 and is home to more than 8 million people.

Recognised as one of the world’s most important urban habitats, green spaces and water occupy over 60% of London’s land. Over 1,300 Sites of Importance
for Nature Conservation cover 19% of the National Park and are home to more than 1,500 species of flowering plants and 300 species of bird.

The campaign is building momentum, with over 50 organisation now Friends of the Greater London National Park* (no, I don’t know why they have an asterisk) and a petition that you can sign if you want to show support.

And if you’re having trouble picturing it…



There is a scary bit too, but I’m not in the mood for that right now. The future is looming over us and makes Kingsway, excrescence that it is, look almost charming. While the nice National Park City people are busy with their visions, Boris Johnson, his pals in the City, and their Qatari chums are also very busy indeed with theirs. We’ll all be more like Symons than we want to realise. There’s work afoot to bring some of this to The London Column, in due course – but for now let’s just enjoy the day…


* N.b.: However, I cannot WAIT to go to the Slad Valley for a week, which is happening soon, and I will be saying then that THAT is the most beautiful place in the world. And even saying that makes me feel guilty about the Catskills, about which I was rather intensely dreaming when I woke up this morning.


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