Read the introduction to this series
Our first night home with Oliver, and we're not sure exactly how to put him to bed without him waking. This is before the learning acquired when we're re-admitted to the Transitional Care Unit. So I end up taking Oliver on a long 3-hour walk at 6AM on a Sunday morning, back and forth around the 4 or 5 blocks of Bloomsbury that surround our flat. He's in a sling, fast asleep for most of the time.
Going over the same terrain, over and over again, even terrain I've walked a thousand times, I see it in a new light, particularly on this cool overcast early Sunday morning, with streets largely without traffic. It gives me a chance to write about the area Oliver arrives in, and that we'll be leaving soon.
I've written a fair bit about Bloomsbury over the years – on the Brunswick Centre, Senate House, Bedford Square, the London bombing, filming Batman, even the collision of 4 different types of street sign on our street corner.
We wander across to Bedford Square, a few metres from the entrance of Gower Mews. Writing about the privatisation of Bedford Square, I'd provoked a response from Mark de Rivaz, Steward of the London Estate – and our landlord, I guess. You can read it here. It's lengthy, lucid, considered, historically informed and though I have never replied to his comment, hoping others might offer a further opinion, I still don't agree with him. As one of the earlier comments notes, neighbouring public squares like Russell Square, Gordon Square and Bloomsbury Square are all well-kept and well-used all year round. The centre of Bedford Square itself is still empty of people almost all of the time. That just can't be right. When a centrepiece garden like that is kept pristine but also devoid of people, you can only assume its primary use is to lift property prices. It becomes little more than an attractive buttonhole.
The improvements to the street furniture on Bedford Square have spruced the place up no end, but there are still issues with drug users around the Square. What would really change the Square, as well as making the centrepiece public, is a more mixed-use approach to tenants, curating the area somewhat, as previously discussed. This would mean the Bedford Estates not trying to earn maximum revenue from every square metre, but seeing the betterment of the area as a goal too, balancing their income across a few high earners to offset a few different tenants that aren't charged as much. Freed of the constraints of maximising revenue, genuinely improving the area through mixed-use development becomes an achievable goal. I can't see that happening anywhere in property-obsessed London though. Besides, the Bedford family have owned the area since 1669 – when it really was all fields – and would argue they know what they're doing.
It's heartening to see one property on the Square—the first for year—applying for planning permission for conversion back to residential use. But the only other non-commercial use on the square is the Architectural Association, and that's disappointingly opaque most of the time. The AA needs to work on their public access and permeability, it really does.
One recent initiative the AA does well is a summer pavilion for Bedford Square. Last year's was fascinating, possibly derived from 3D Pythagorean trees. This year's is equally good, being a dome-like structure composed of huge sweeping wooden struts, curving up at the ends like great Wooly Mammoth tusks. Alone in the square, we stand underneath it, a limited bit of cover from a few spits of rain. It's a nice piece of work, from a project by student Margaret Dewhurst. On sunny days, the great trunks of wood become impromptu seats for people to lean back on.
Wandering across to the British Museum, I note the Great Court opens at 9AM, and pin that as our goal … Ollie seems OK with this. Then again, he's 3 days old – what does he know? Two drowsy, punky young Americans hail me from across the street, asking for directions to Bedford Place. The girl is annoying at first, but they both melt on seeing Oliver in the sling. They stumble off towards Russell Square, heading roughly in the right direction. I see them ask for clarification from a tourist coach driver no more than 20 metres further on, having clearly forgotten anything beyond the last 10 seconds. Oliver and I turn our attention to the two fine haughty lions, imperiously guarding the back entrance of the British Museum.
Bloomsbury is physically and psychologically dominated by two large institutions, whose administrative relationships are entwined in such labyrinthine ways it's impossible to pick them apart: University College London (UCL) and University College London Hospital (UCLH). I've written quite enough about the latter in this series, and a fair bit about the former, including its complex history emerging from the University of London, in my tour of the wonderful 1930s building, Senate House, the university's administrative headquarters.
Like London itself, the University of London was poly-nodal, with multiple institutions under its umbrella. A smart concept, ahead of its time maybe. It was a network of networks, and is depicted at its simplest in a beautiful tapestry map in Senate House. Still, that's wall-sized and it's got more complex since then.
The centrepiece and focal point was always this area though, with Senate House at its heart. Its influence spreads over the entire area, though, with the end result that it almost feels like a campus. It lends the place "the character of a university town" according to Peter Campbell, in a lovely piece on the area in the London Review of Books.
This it does, and there's a remarkably placid, civic feel to the place. Even though the area around Malet Street is historically a home to protest, it's always a very genteel form of protest.
The smallish area we're walking around is marked out below:
You can see the area is characterised by squares, the university, and the British Museum, with the hospital to the left. Just out of view are the Brunswick Centre to the right, and then all of London's centre further to the left. As such, this area is perfectly placed and articulated – a "university town", with numerous perfect green squares, and almost everything else you'd need within walking distance.
Strolling through the UCL campus, we look ahead to see someone stretching, preparing for a run. There is hardly anyone else around. To our left is a small but neat extension of SOAS – the famous School of Oriental and African studies. Next to a curving 30s block, it enjoys floor-to-ceiling picture windows, with text in numerous scripts engraved on the left-hand panes, from ground to roof.
We then come to a favourite point of mine: the Denys Lasdun-designed Institute of Education building. I love this building—it's almost a megastructure. It actually picked up the gauntlet of the original plans for Senate House, which proposed a vast extension to the north of the tower. That never happened, but Lasdun's Institute of Education, opened in 1977, at least continued in the same brave, progressive vein. Though this too only completed 1 of the 5 proposed wings.
Round the back, where we are, there is what I reckon is London's Most Thrilling Staircase. It seems to rear up at you and recline backwards, simultaneously. It provides a serrated edge to this side of the building, and punctuated with holes, frames numerous great views from all angles. So thrilling is the staircase, in fact, that access seems utterly denied, with metal railings all around every possible egress point.
I suppose it might have some competition from Lasdun et al's other staircases on the South Bank. The Trellick Tower's staircase is too showy, too obvious. And I'm discounting the many fine internal staircases in London. So this is it.
I pause to consider the fact that I've made a up mental list of London's Most Thrilling Staircases. I move on, quickly.
I walk across the rear courtyard of the IoE with Oliver, and up some stairs to a podium level to nowhere. There are what I assume to be concrete plant pots built into the podium wall, sadly dry and bereft of life. Why are our finest buildings not serviced properly?
A security guard sleepily calls up to ask "What I'm looking for?" I say I'm just looking around, going for a walk with my baby. He says I'll set off alarms, so I saunter back down the steps, half-heartedly, It's a podium to nowhere—what alarms? Investing in alarms but not plant pots seems odd. The guard is good-natured though, closer to Ollie's heavy-lidded state than my inquisitive meandering – I imagine he'll be asleep too within minutes.
Peter Campbell's aforementioned LRB article centres on Russell Square, and the Bloomsbury squares in general. Though he disagrees with me about private squares—he says they're better than private gardens; I say let's have private gardens and public squares—he paints a good likeness of the reinvigorated Russell Square:
"In the centre children tease the new, pond-less fountain by dashing through the spray; flocks of parasite-ridden pigeons ease the itch as they bathe there with ruffled feathers. If you cross the square early you strike the dog walkers and the t’ai chi adepts. Later it is tourists asking the way, unable to believe that the British Museum can be where their maps say it is, and parties of schoolchildren eating their sandwiches."
Friends of mine think it disgraceful that the wiping clean of the area has also eradicated the casual and harmless gay sex that Russell and Bloomsbury Squares afforded the night. Indeed, the squares are possibly too sanitised now. As with the Brunswick Centre, this involves a fine balancing act possibly beyond the nous of London's private developers or public councils. Or more generously, beyond the tight, property-driven framework that contemporary London allows them.
As we approach Russell Square this morning, I spot a slightly bedraggled man hopping out of the bush on a traffic island near the square, and start scrabbling around in the undergrowth, looking for something. I don't think he's an amateur botanist, though he may be looking for a weed of sorts. But probably something harder. He's harmless enough.
Also scrabbling around in the undergrowth, though you'd expect them to, are several squirrels. Seeing them frozen on the spot, barely twitching, then darting with impossible speed, then freezing again, I'm reminded of John Updike's description of them as constantly posing for photographs.
We head back towards UCL, past the Cabman's shelter, past the Faber building on the corner, with the brown plaque commemorating when TS Eliot worked there. Bloomsbury has an intense concentration of heritage plaques, and as we wander over to Gordon Square, via Woburn Square, we see an aggregate plaque for the Bloomsbury set – great artists, writers, economists but also purveyors of the hilarious Dreadnaught Hoax, in which a bearded Virginia Woolf fools the British Navy. Writing, publishing and a gently British political provocation infuses much of the psychogeography here.
The squares are gorgeous. What a great bit of planning this is. No need for a large park, surrounded by serried ranks of streets. Far better to intersperse the area with a series of smaller squares. I've already mentioned the private Bedford Square and the public Russell Square, but there are several lesser-known public squares – Gordon, Bloomsbury, Woburn – that are all well-used and well-kept.
Surrounding each is a quiet riot of varied architectural styles, but at its core the Georgian terrace. Campbell again:
"The homogenous domestic style of the Bloomsbury squares starts very simple (brick, with stucco ground floors and no ornament except around doorcases). Even the full stucco fronts and porches of the later 1800s are not much more than heavier make-up on the same faces. These styles still cover much of Bloomsbury like tattered wallpaper."
Indeed they do, but what wallpaper. There's a pure, minimalist grace to the Georgian terrace, which is also extremely adaptable. Campbell notes "the terrace house is an adaptable building type which can fit most needs." As with the Harley Street buildings earlier, it's an adaptive design of firm foundations, and simple, clear, boxy layers that can stand a fair bit of reconfiguring. Its clear beauty and human scale, and lack of the rich ornamental detailing that came later, also enable simple conversions.
We wander across to Gower Street. Gower Street is a bit sad, really. It was clearly a very fine London street once, but is now impossibly choked with traffic. The current incarnation of the street is defined by many useless hotels – and a few nice small ones – and even some derelict terraces, which is amazing and terrible given the location and fine building stock. There's the original RADA building, bisexual society hostess and incurable romantic Lady Ottoline Morrell had a house just opposite the entrance to our Mews, and in between the two, appropriately for a street effectively lying dormant in terms of genuine use, there's a plaque marking where the first anaesthetic was given in Britain. The street has now been anaesthetised by traffic coursing through its veins, and is going nowhere slowly, just like the cars and buses. The new UCLH dominates the top end, and Bedford Square marks the bottom end, but aside from all the blue plaquery, the only real point of interest is the excellent Waterstones bookshop at no. 82, which specialises in academic text books and has a good remainders department.
Across Gower Street, we're veering too close to the hospital Oliver's just emerged from, so we wander back, pausing only to note the lovely solid mansion blocks of Ridgmount Gardens and Gordon Mansions. British architecture has none of the lightness or permeability of, say, Pacific Asian/American equivalents, simply due to the climate. It's brick and stone, in varying degrees of grace. It is solid, sturdy and that's that, somewhat like its traditional cuisine. So these mansion blocks, and buildings like EGA, Cruciform, Senate House, IoE etc, will always symbolise much of British architecture to me.
Back around the block again, this time we note the new Birkbeck building, just behind Senate House. As with the new building opposite Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, it blends beautifully with the existing building that adjoins. Note how the tiled 'piping' at the top continues from old building to new. It's not that it's an absolutely knockout bit of architecture; just distinguished. Both of these buildings move forward – the one by EGA most of all – but not at the expense of synthesis with the existing architectural fabric. Which, frankly, probably made them achievable.
We wander through to Tottenham Court Road, which is now beginning to get busy. It's not a great street, particular at the lower end, towards Centre Point and St. Giles (which I've also written about). There are numerous interesting details to TCR, both in and on the buildings and the inhabitants, but it's in no way pleasant. So we move back towards the comparative shelter of Bloomsbury.
I realise how much I've enjoyed living in the area. I'm ready to move on, though, and it's at this point – alongside the peculiarly utilitarian block on Bedford Way – that I really realise I'm saying goodbye as well as showing Oliver around, and looking forwards to Sydney.
I think on this through all the way across to Great Russell Street, past the lovely 1957 Congress House with Jacob Epstein statue, with its "noble aspirations", according to Peter York.
Down Coptic Street, along Little Russell Street, round the back of Hawksmoor's St. George's with its distinctive stepped tower derived from the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, as seen in Hogarth's etching 'Gin Lane'.
Onwards up Bury Place past the wonderful London Review Bookshop, and up and down Great Russell Street a few times, not wanting to expose Oliver to the slowly rising fumes of Southampton Row. I don't come to any particular conclusions, but given the time afforded by Oliver, I just relax into the thoughts.
This sense of time is different to that I'm used to. I'm usually cramming information into every spare moment. I'm the kind of guy who reads a magazine, with the radio on, while brushing my teeth. Here, I have nothing to distract me. Indeed, can have nothing to distract me, due to Ollie.
By now, it's nearly 9AM, and I make sure I'm around the front of the British Museum on Great Russell Street. Grabbing a coffee, we enter the building's huge forecourt and head up the steps into the Great Court, by Foster & Partners, the only part of the building that's open.
As much as I love this space, the light in here is often unappealing—a strangely dead non-white is cast evenly to every corner. Perhaps it's the lack of crisp shadow that unnerves.
Here though, virtually empty, the space does seem quite majestic. It's me, Oliver and the Japanese tourists. The latter had actually, and quite uncharacteristically, turned up 12 minutes early. They found themselves in the unusual position of having to 'hang around'. This they did by taking pictures of each other, as if to actually perform a perfect stereotyped portrait for me.
Inside, with the pale English sun shining through, we wander quietly around the empty space. I notice a spattering of discreet black marks on top of the canopy, but upon looking carefully, I can see they're birds sitting on Foster's roof. I'd never seen this before, on many previous visits when the space below had been very full. I wonder if the noise of the inhabited Great Court reverberates upwards, transforming the glass into a form of giant snare drum. We should fix some microphones to it.
In 1869, Henry James called Bloomsbury, "an antiquated ex-fashionable region, smelling strong of the last century". Yet, 138 years later, I can report that Bloomsbury feels just fine (even if bits of it do smell of various points in the last 3 centuries). We head home …
Other pieces in this series:
A birth, in 13 places
1. Scan; Private clinic, Harley Street, Central London
2. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital, UCLH, Huntley Street, Central London
3. Active Birth Centre, Tufnell Park, North London
4. Antenatal classes; 1A Roseberry Avenue, Central London
5. Bloomsbury Birthing Centre, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital, UCLH, Huntley Street, Central London
6. Delivery Room 1, Labour Ward, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital, UCLH, Huntley Street, Central London
7. A&E, UCLH Main Building, Gower Street, Central London
8. Amenity Room 6, Nixon Suite, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital (part of UCH), Huntley Street, Central London
9. Café Deco, Store Street, Central London
10. Transitional Care Unit, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital (UCLH), Huntley Street, Central London
11. Home, Gower Mews, Central London
12. Bloomsbury, Central London
13. Registry Office, Camden Town Hall, Central London
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