Look up and see spires, finials and pinnacles that make up London’s skyline. Look down, and you will find grit and glory, the hurried and harried steps of strangers, pigeons, dogs, grilles and gutters. Both above and below: all of life is here.
And so it is, that the highs, lows and in-betweens of London shape the opening credits of my journey to work from Brick Lane to Bloomsbury. Each day I seek out new treasures, and each day, I am rewarded.
Until late last year, my local commute took just five or ten minutes, red lights and wayward pedestrians permitting. Now, with a journey of between 15 and 30 minutes I have time to look around, to see the hitherto unseen – and what joy there is in the streets that unfold around me.
Have you ever passed The Yorkshire Grey pub on the corner of Theobald and Gray’s Inn Roads? Next time, look up to the corner and bid good day to the handsome Cavalryman who sits astride the eponymous Yorkshire Grey, a horse adopted by 18C stage coach companies that operated along this busy route. It’s no wonder he looks puzzled; what will he make of the cars, trucks, bikes and lorries that have replaced his four-legged friend? At least someone has seen fit to keep him clean; earlier images show him cloaked less in his smart red uniform, more in soot giving him the very same complexion of the Inn over which he presides.
The last few years has witnessed the happy revival of The Old Sessions House on Clerkenwell Green, an elegant and favourite part of historic London. Built for the Middlesex Quarter Sessions of the justices of the peace, the House was also home to Avery Weighing Machines before it became the centre for London’s Masons. When these august people departed, it fell into disrepair … until two Swedish brothers brought it back to life.
Watching rightful glory be restored to this building has been one of the visual joys of any ride into town, for it has been effected with integrity and love. Now home to creative start-ups, exhibitions of photography, fashion and more, this formerly derelict structure is populated by Londoners and tourists of every age, creed and colour; not only has its very being been restored but its public purpose too.
When you pass The Old Sessions House, look west, skyward to the high 19C terrace where green folliage can be spied atop one of the buildings; this, I am reliably informed, is an urban vineyard from which just a handful of fine bottles are harvested annually. Would that I could sip Vin de Fleet as it should be called, for this very river flowed beneath the Farringdon Road before being buried in a system of underground tunnels. The wine, if my sources are correct, is delicious and will doubtless become equally legendary in time.
If you visit Philpott Lane in the City, a poetic and historic vignette tells the story of a workman who, on crafting the top of that building fought with his colleague over a missing sandwich; he fell and died. Two mice and a piece of cheese now commemorate the event. Learning of the carving during a compelling Cabversation, I know to look for it when in that corner of the world.
Taking a wider route home through Hackney more recently, my heart soared upon sight of the familiar Haggerston Baths, another wonderful public building fallen into disrepair; beautiful though the building is, it was more the cupola and ship rising from the roof in triumphant manner that moved me. No ordinary vessel, this is a gilded weathervane, surely to remain in situ post-restoration, when the building is returned to the public domain (alas, without its poolish function)?
Would that such imaginative quirks might adorn our dreary, faceless contemporary public buildings; no celebration can feature now, for all such development is grasped by private sector hands. God forbid that commemorative architectural flourishes might be commissioned to stir the public soul; they cost money dontcha know?
A timely moment then, to cast our eyes downwards, across the lower echelons of London’s highways and byways. This view reveals a whole different world, one colonised by sleeping policemen, by feet of every size and shape traversing our pavements, bridges and backstreets; by sometimes astounding graffiti created in defiance of political and private sector sensibilities. Long may it last, this particular brand of London graffiti.
Let’s start with the sleeping policemen; these annoying speed-bumps installed as traffic calming measures, have become implicit to every side street and even some major arteries. Visit the South Bank however and you find that the bumps don’t. A triumph of trompe l’oeil, of style over substance they are completely flat, yet their implied height forces traffic to slow and good heavens, they work. How much has Southwark Council saved with this imaginative trick of the eye? I for one, am impressed; aware of the sleight of hand, I still reduce my speed – although given I ride a 50cc Benelli perhaps this boast is a little optimistic.
When waiting at traffic lights, an aspect of pavement life that I very much enjoy is watching myriad feet of all shapes, and sizes step, saunter, stroll and stride through the city. Women in suits and trainers march with intent; girls in heels teeter across the pavements playing don’t-step-in-the-cracks to avoid becoming wedged between the slabs.
A man’s shiny shoe cuts a sharp suit through the crowd; Converse sneakers signature the insouciant hipster, whilst soft lace-ups trademark the jacket-and-trouser manager. Generalisations for sure … but also generally correct and gratifyingly amusing to observe.
Let’s round off this litany of life with a glance at London graffiti; of course, Banksy is the King of street art, but there is so much more of worth to see and consider; works created by thinking people, by those who have something to say and find in the street an audience prepared to listen with their eyes. Some is unsightly, much can help to open your mind.
Next time you walk the streets of London, put your phone away and look around. There’s a whole world out there; it can be beautiful and even if not, it just might show you something you hadn’t seen, or didn’t know before.
© Giovanna Forte