London Landmarks

8th July 2011

Is it possible to have a cultural day in the centre of London without spending any money?

Stout shoes and sandwiches to the ready, Jack Watkins has a go…

The French poet Baudelaire had a word for the person who ‘walked the streets of the city in order to experience it’: the flâneur. I’ve always fancied myself to be one, if a little detached from the dandyesque and social observational connotations that some have since attached to the term – so the idea of spending a day strolling through London without parting with cash is rather tempting.

It’s a challenge, nevertheless, to create an itinerary that is varied and appealing. Where to start and where to end, where to find balance between structure and lack of it: opportunities to sit down and moments where you can amble and experience the glorious sensation of being adrift in one of the most captivating cities in the world…

My day begins sedately enough at the British Library. That’s no big deal for me – I’m often here researching – but today’s a leisure day, so I use it to explore the free galleries. There’s an exhibition currently running that shows how Science Fiction has actually influenced new discoveries [as reviewed in Optima, issue 470]. I’m more drawn to trying to understand the past, however, so I head for the Sir John Ritblat Gallery, where you can ponder the exquisite beauty of illuminated manuscripts, Islamic texts and old maps, or run an eye over the musical scores of Handel, Ravel and Elgar – and the Beatles, who, annoyingly, have a cabinet to themselves. Huffily, as to me they’re the most overrated band in history, I walk off and enter a room specially dedicated to Magna Carta. The dimmed lighting required to protect the ancient manuscripts in the Ritblat Gallery has a soothing effect on visitors. Everyone speaks in hushed tones, as if in church. Perhaps other institutions should try it. Some London museums are as noisy these days as a MacDonalds hosting a children’s party.

Caryatids on the north side of St Pancras New Church

Leaving the Library, I walk west along the Euston Road. It’s a candidate for the ugliest street in London, but what can you expect from a major traffic artery, and it does have its visual compensations. Don’t miss, for instance, St Pancras New Church, opposite the old fire station and Euston Station. It was modelled on a Greek temple and, when it was completed in 1822, it was the most expensive church built in London since Wren’s St Paul’s. Most remarkable are the huge caryatids – sculpted Grecian maidens – supporting the roofs of the side pavilions.

If you can bear with the smog and the noise, persevere for a few minutes and you will arrive at a string of roads leading to Regent’s Park. Most tourists come here for London Zoo, at the north end, but Londoners love its simple greenery. I also enjoy its long lines of dignified, cream stuccoed Nash terraces, its ornate flower beds at the Marylebone end (that mix of French formality and English floral exuberance) and, in what for me is one of the loveliest prospects in miniature in central London, the view from the Outer Circle, near Hanover Terrace, across the lake to the villa called The Holme. The Holme’s architect was Decimus Burton: Regent’s Park’s other man, behind the headline-hogging Nash. Some of these terraces are actually are by him, and he laid out the original zoo.

Crossing the Euston Road, pass along the elegant colonnades of Park Crescent. It leads onto Portland Place, a rare London boulevard, positively continental in its broad proportions. You suddenly realize how narrow and cramped most of London is, a city organically layering itself over the still-discernible outlines of old villages. The weeds pushing up through cracks in the pavements are vestiges of the old fields.

Nash’s intention was for the road to continue, a kind of triumphal way, down to the Prince Regent’s Carlton House, overlooking St James. It never quite happened.

Portland Place has fanlighted Georgian terraces, but most of these are offices now. The Royal Institute of British Architects building is as handsome as you might hope, but most interest is at the end of the road as it curves to meet the north end of Regent Street. The BBC’s Broadcasting House is as ocean-liner swish as, opposite, the Langham Hotel is railway station ugly. Then there’s All Souls Church with its unusual circular portico, and its spire sharp as a pin. When they built the Langham, the developers dismissed Nash’s building as ‘that quaint church with its peculiar steeple’. But no-one remembers who designed the Langham today, whereas Nash is an architectural hero. You can see his bust in the portico.

Down Regent Street, I cross Oxford Circus. I’m being faithful to following Nash’s road scheme, but given my vow of spending abstinence, it’s not a great move: passing the clothes stores thronged by credit card flashing shoppers lowers the spirits. Dog-legging eastwards at Piccadilly, Regent Street then swings south again. It’s a dull street, all buses and day trippers, but Carlton House Terrace is a good place to pause for breath, and take in the statuary to great men. The towering column that is surmounted by Frederick, Duke of York, marks the official end of Nash’s triumphal way.

St James’s Park looks enticing, but the crowds are descending. I opt instead for a stroll along Pall Mall to the National Gallery, another place to which work often brings me, for the special exhibitions. Seldom do I get the chance to wander haphazardly here. Today I decide to set myself a task: to ‘discover’ an artist unknown to me – and, perhaps, to many others – who yet seems worthy of further exploration. I find my quarry in the Sainsbury Wing rooms dedicated to early Italian art. Carlo Crivelli was born in Venice in the 1430s, but banished from the city for adultery and later worked in the Italian Marches. His human figures and facial expressions are remarkable: fingers elongated, faces lined, and no-one smiling. A depiction of the Virgin, so often insipid, looks spiteful; others figures are sinister and witch-like. Crivelli has a room to himself. I’ll be back to see more.

The Banqueting House, Whitehall, by Thomas Hosmer Shepherd (1793 - 1864)

Out on Trafalgar Square, the sunlight is blinding. I’m flagging now, and in need of tranquillity. I don’t find it on Whitehall, though, where all eyes swivel right to the handsome spectacle of mounted troopers at Horse Guards. Across the road, easily overlooked, is Banqueting House, England’s first Renaissance building. This is where, in 1649, on a parapet suspended from a window, Charles I became the only English monarch (so far) to be have been beheaded.

My expedition ends at Westminster Cathedral, set back from Victoria Street – another ugly thoroughfare, but when you are on foot in London, you have to take the bad with the good. The piazza is a little burst of the Mediterranean: the cathedral with its stripey stone and red brick, with its sea of domes and its campanile taking its inspiration from Byzantium. Under the hushed voids of its darkened nave, amidst the mosaics and marble, here is true serenity, and welcome relief from a day of pavement pounding.

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