“Tax needn’t be taxing”

So says the Inland Revenue in its publicity material. And, of course, we believe it, don’t we?

Well, a naive fool might, but only until he actually tries to file his return…

When I was working and my tax situation was fairly complex, the Inland Revenue didn’t bother to send me a form to fill in. Apparently, they knew everything about my income and contented themselves with sending me a coding notice every year.

When I stopped working and my tax situation became very simple, the Inland Revenue decided to start sending a form to fill in every year. Why they needed to do this is a mystery to me because on one occasion I got a figure wrong and they told I had got it wrong: apparently they knew my finances better than I knew them myself.

Because they had started sending me the annual tax form only recently, when I didn’t receive one in April 2010, I just assumed the IR had come to its senses and realized that it wasn’t necessary for my to fill in a form. That was naive of me.

In January, I received the form. The envelope was dirty and covered with boot prints. I don’t know where it had been but it had obviously been delivered to the wrong house (our post people do that far too often) and it had lain in a hallway being walked on until someone had decided to pass it on.

By now, the date for the submission of paper forms was long past. I phoned the IR’s helpline and, unmoved by my tales of undelivered mail, they told me to fill in the self-assessment form online. The deadline for online submission was January 31st. “Plenty of time,” they told me cheerfully.

To do this, however, I needed to register online and apply for a password which would be sent to me by post. It was now already the middle of the month and the blurb said it would take a week to 10 days for the password to reach me. And what if that letter also got lost? I would be stymied.

In the meantime, as a backup, I filled in the paper form, made a copy for my records and sent it to the IR with a covering letter. I even enclosed the envelope the form had come in, complete with boot prints, to substantiate my story. That letter never received a reply or even an acknowledgement.

The letter with the password arrived safely and I went online to fill in my self assessment. Now, I am reasonable computer and Web literate and, I think, not stupid. Even so I found the online form to be less than a model of clarity. (It was even more difficult to handle when, as I shall explain, I had to go back and modify it.) But I struggled through it, muttering the mantra “Tax needn’t be taxing”, and eventually reached the end, satisfied that I had done my duty. This was confirmed, it seemed to me, by a letter arriving with this year’s tax code.

Then the bill arrived. It told me that I was overdue with my payment of £3905.75. What!? I rang the number prominently displayed on the bill. This turned out to be a waste of time because the people who send out bills and put their telephone number prominently at the top of them are not the Inland Revenue and therefore cannot help with tax problems. How stupid is that?

I found the number for the IR helpline and after waiting in the inevitable queue where, every few seconds, a recorded voice tries to persuade you to do whatever it is you want to do online instead – something not guaranteed to improve your mood – I finally managed to talk to a human being.

The man I spoke to very quickly spotted what was wrong. I had included certain income, putting the gross amount, as required, but I had neglected to fill in the box for the amount of tax paid on that income. So it looked as though I hadn’t paid that tax. The annoying thing was that he told me the exact number that I had to enter in the box. Why on earth, if they know that I have paid the tax do they ignore this fact and give me a hard time? that’s just one of the things I find despicable about the IR.

According to my informant, I could go online and alter the form. “Will everything then be all right?” I asked, trying to keep the tremor out of my voice.

“Yes,” he said, “as long as you send us a payment of £49.75.”

What!? How the hell do I owe you £49.75? And if I do, why don’t you do what you have always done before and adjust my tax code to take it during the year? Because the date for asking to have underpayment included in the tax code has passed…

Swallowing my indignation, I asked him to send me a bill for the correct amount. He agreed to do this. However, I have never received this bill and as time was passing and I was afraid they would penalize me, I went online and paid the money.

I thought that had sorted things out. Need I say that that was naive of me?

Just to be sure that everything was in order, I rang the helpful helpline again. Was everything now in order? Oh yes, they said, just as long as you send us a payment of £47.41.

What!? How the hell do I owe you £47.41? My informant explained it to me – several times – but I didn’t understand. I did understand that it was somehow my fault because I had not filled in the form properly. “If you know I didn’t fill in the form properly, why didn’t you… oh, never mind…”

I decided to look through last year’s tax papers. There I found a letter telling me that there had been an underpayment of £47.41 which they would recover through the tax code. So why are they asking me for it again? Another call to the helpline…

This time, the helpline person managed to explain it to me. It took three goes but eventually I got it. You will not be surprised to learn that it was, once again, my fault, according to them. Apparently, there is a box on the online form where you are supposed to enter any underpayment of tax recovered during the year through the tax code. I had not filled it in, so they thought they had charged me too much tax and had adjusted this year’s tax code to pay it back. So now I was getting too much money and had to repay it.

I went online again and paid this money. Tomorrow or another day, I will call the helpline and ask if everything, finally, has been sorted out.

Reading between the lines, it seems to me that the reason why the IR are pushing online assessment so vigorously is because this is an automated system. Fill it in, and your tax is calculated automatically. Your assessment is untouched by human hand. It is only if something goes obviously wrong and you call the helpline that a human being looks at your file and perhaps diagnoses the problem.

I don’t know what you think, but I find this worrying. What if I am hopeless with money and figures and make a hash of the assessment form. Won’t I end up paying too little or too much tax? What if I don’t realize this and go on making the same mistakes year after year?

I am sure some apologist from the IR will say that this can’t happen and that they check. I won’t believe that. I will believe that if they bother to look, they will find mistakes (though it did take the helpline two goes to find all the mistakes in my assessment) but I don’t believe that they bother to look in the majority of cases. Automation and and the temptation to reduce staff because of it induces laziness and incompetence.

In future, I will keep an eye on the post and make sure I receive a paper assessment form and I will fill it in. I will avoid the online assessment like the plague. Of course, for all I know, some clerk may simply copy the details from my paper form onto an online assessment form but I live in hope that it might actually be dealt with by a human being.

I’m naive like that.

Update March 15th 2011

I had intended to check with the tax helpline that all was in order but kept letting matters slide. I was prompted at the end of last week, however, by the arrival of yet another demand for money. It came in the form of a letter dated March 1st which was, I realized, before I had made my recent payments. But that in itself deserves criticism: why does it take them 11 days to send a letter once it has been written?

I therefore rang the helpline once again this morning. I might also remark that the number has an 0845 prefix and that one has first to go through the usual wretched menu, at every stage being annoyingly reminded that you could go to the Web site for information that is irrelevant to the case, to be put in a queue where your call “will be answered as soon as possible”, a phrase that signals a long wait. In other words, phoning for help costs a not insignificant amount of money as well as time.

The person who eventually answered was polite, friendly and helpful, as usual, and confirmed that my tax situation was now settled. I asked whether there was any information that I should carry over to my next assessment form. The answer was “No, but you should always check with us to see that everything is in order.”

An offer I can’t refuse, would you say?

Copyright © 2011 SilverTiger, http://tigergrowl.wordpress.com, All rights reserved.

Posted in Life's problems | Tagged | 4 Comments

Bath and Welsh chapel in Fulham

We started out late today. Perhaps it was a combination of a long walk yesterday, the cold weather and, well, it was the weekend! I think Tigger had ideas of taking the train somewhere but I felt it was a bit late for that. By now we were at St Pancras so we stopped for brunch at Crêpe Affaire. Then, we took the tube.

Fulham Town Hall
Fulham Town Hall

This is where the tube brought us – to Fulham. This is Fulham Town Hall and it is a listed building, as you probably guessed. Made of Portland stone, it was designed by George Edwards and built between 1888 and 1890. It was soon found to be too small and an extension was added in 1904-5 and 30 years later the building was further extended sideways.

Sideways extension
Sideways extension

This matching extension was built, as the date on the front indicates, in 1934. As it was Sunday, we couldn’t go in, which was a pity as I believe there are some nice stained glass windows.

Harwood Road extension 1904-5
Harwood Road extension 1904-5

Going around the corner into Harwood Road, you find the first extension. It is quite grand and has a clock to boot. I think that quite a lot of towns would be satisfied with this as their town hall.

Entrance mosaic
Entrance mosaic

It has this rather nice mosaic in the entrance. The slightly odd angle of the photo comes from my having to take it by poking the camera through a metal grill. There is also a bronze plaque listing the names of the Aldermen at the date of opening.

Walham Green station
Walham Green station

This pretty little station (yes, it’s listed!) was designed by Harry W. Ford and was the area’s District Line station until it was replaced by the modern station in 2003. Called Walham Green, it opened in 1910 and replaced an even earlier station of 1880.

Inside the old station
Inside the old station

The building has become a market but a glimpse inside still gives an impression of what it must have been like as a station.

Welsh chapel
Welsh chapel

foundation

Later we came upon this interesting little Welsh chapel, seemingly built in stone. How do we know it is Welsh? Because it is still displaying foundation stones bearing inscriptions in the Welsh language. The one of the left says “This stone was raised by Timothy Williams Esq”, June 7th 1900. There is a matching stone on the other side, credited to a Mrs William Evans of Birmingham.

Only the façade is in stone
Only the façade is in stone

“Seemingly built in stone” because, as you can see in the photo above, the main part of the building is in brick and only the front is of stone. The congregation presumably could not afford to build the whole thing in stone.

Art Nouveau railings Art Nouveau railings
Art Nouveau railings

What was startling, however, was the Art Nouveau style railings with curvy uprights and metal leaves. I imagine these railings must have been added later, replacing the original, no doubt more sober, railings. There was also a delicate gate in the same style across the entrance, though it, and the chapel as a whole, was difficult to photograph because of cars parked in front. (A business now uses the chapel as its premises.)

Samuel Lewis Trust Dwellings
Samuel Lewis Trust Dwellings

In Vanston Place we met an old friend. To be precise, it was a rather large estate created in 1922 under the trust set up in the will of Samuel Lewis,  something I mentioned in The philanthropist, the hole in the wall and the cat walker.

The steeple of St John of Fulham
The steeple of St John of Fulham

This is the steeple of the parish church St John of Fulham. It’s forecourt is home to an impressively large flock of pigeons.

St John's pigeons
St John’s pigeons

Across the road from the church, we discovered what was possibly the highlight of the tour.

Fulham Public Baths & Wash-Houses
Fulham Public Baths & Wash-Houses

We discovered the Fulham (or “FVLHAM”) public baths and wash-houses built in 1900. The façade is ornate but beautiful. There is a concrete dedication or foundation stone but it is eroded and almost illegible.

Part of the façade Part of the façade
Part of the façade

We spotted a man standing outside the baths taking a cigarette break. Tigger asked about the baths and he invited us to come in and take a look.

The baths, now a dance studio The baths, now a dance studio
The baths, now a dance studio

The baths are now divided into dance studios. We were able to walk up the stairs and along corridors but not able to visit the studios. It’s hard to know what remains of the baths. My impression is that it is very little. Our host seemed to know a lot about the building and gave Tigger a mini tour. Unfortunately, I was in the toilet at the time and missed it!

These baths would have been built when only the grandest houses had bathrooms. Even the middle classes would have come here to take their baths and there would have been first- and second-class bathrooms. The baths would have been considered an important service, not just a facility for the poor.

Once a church now a bedding retailer
Once a church now a bedding retailer

This building, once a church, is now a shop selling bedding. Bedstraws in the wind, perhaps.

Sunlit apartments
Sunlit apartments

Despite the sunlight that was shining so pleasantly on this block of apartments (not Samuel Lewis dwellings this time), I was feeling the cold and as a consequence losing my enthusiasm. It was time to find a tube station and return to the Angel.

The Monument
The Monument

We emerged from the Underground here, at the Monument and from there took a bus the rest of the way.

Fulham may not seem an obvious destination for exploration but even this relatively brief tour showed that no less than in any other part of London it offers surprises and intriguing discoveries. Perhaps when the weather becomes milder we can return for another expedition.

A face in the wall, Fulham Broadway
A face in the wall, Fulham Broadway

Copyright © 2011 SilverTiger, http://tigergrowl.wordpress.com, All rights reserved.

Posted in Out and About | Tagged | 4 Comments

Dawdling in Bloomsbury

After breakfast at the Alpino, we went down to Kings cross to meet friends but they cried off because of illness. Nothing daunted we returned to the Angel, did the week’s shop at the supermarket, and thought about what to do next.

The Thornhill Arms
The Thornhill Arms

We headed back towards St Pancras, but by a backstreet route, encountering along the way this fine Edwardian pub on the corner of Wynford Road and Calshot Street.

Door pillars Decorative detail
Edwardian glazed tiles

The glazed tiles are characteristic of the Edwardian period and they not only look handsome but are long lasting. Unfortunately, they are not immune to damage from accidents (the tops of the pillars have suffered) or from the addition of brackets and external wiring. I wish people would treat beautiful old buildings with more respect.

argyleschool lsbplate
Argyle Primary School

Crossing boldly into the Borough of Camden, we first took a look at this school, once known as the Manchester Street School, whose London School Board plaque declares a completion date of 1902. These days the building is more likely to be remembered as the school attended by Kenneth Williams as it is a stop on Camden’s Kenneth Williams guided tour.

cromerhouse

We walked along Cromer Street, where Williams fans will find Cromer House, the block of flats in which the comedian-actor lived as a child, and continued into Judd Street which in turn leads into Hunter Street.

Hunter Street is named after Scottish surgeon John Hunter (1728-93).

Royal Free Hospital School of Medicine
Royal Free Hospital School of Medicine

Hunter Street is therefore an appropriate location for what is today called the Royal Free Hospital School of Medicine. The school opened here in 1874 as the London School of Medicine for Women, founded by women frustrated at not being admitted to British medical schools. The school merged with the Royal Free in 1896 and received the name it bears today.

Thomas Coram contemplates the Foundling Hospital that he created
Thomas Coram contemplates the Foundling Hospital that he created

Along Hunter Street we were heading towards Coram’s Fields, where Thomas Coram created his Hospital for the Maintenance and Education of Exposed and Deserted Young Children. This ran from 1739 to 1953 as the Foundling Hospital. The building today houses the Foundling Museum, which can of course be visited.

Thomas Coram 1668-1751
Thomas Coram 1668-1751

The Hospital accepted children whose mothers were too poor or were otherwise unable to keep them. Requests for admission soon exceeded the hospital’s capacity and the administration had the painful task of picking and choosing new entrants. Each was carefully recorded in the hospital’s ledgers which still make interesting if moving reading today. Each parent was asked to submit a “token” – a piece of cloth, a written note, a padlock – which was kept with the child’s record. This would allow the parent in happier circumstances to return and claim the child. Sadly, less than one percent were ever reunited with their parents. The rest were schooled and eventually trained for work.

Thomas Coram is also above the door
Thomas Coram is also above the door

Once again, photography is not allowed and I therefore cannot show you anything of the inside of the building. Apart from this I have to say that my visit left me a little disappointed. The museum provided no real feeling of what the Hospital had been like, what a visitor at some point during its history might have seen or what the experience would have been for the children who lived and grew up there. There was information on display but the building might, to all appearances, have been an art gallery (there are a lot of paintings throughout) with one room devoted the the composer Handel.

To my mind, this is not a minor criticism. I think it very important that we remember our social past and keep in mind how long and often painful was the process that led to the provision of the facilities and social services that we enjoy today and too often take for granted. We – and politicians – need to be reminded of what we have and how we once lacked it.

Mecklenburgh Square
Mecklenburgh Square

Leaving the museum, we passed along a path across the park into Mecklenburgh Square. The imposing name is matched by some imposing buildings such as the above which is flanked on either side by smaller versions. Much of the Square is listed but beyond that, I know nothing of its history – a project for another time, perhaps.

Drinking fountain, Guilford Place
Drinking fountain, Guilford Place

Leaky fountain

We walked along Guilford Street (I hope you are following this on a map!) to the end of Lamb’s Conduit Street or, rather, Guilford Place, as it is called at that point. We visited an old friend, the drinking fountain that stands there. A Classical-looking lady on top is pouring from an urn but, unfortunately, nothing comes out. Ironically, the fountain does not work (I tried) but is leaking copiously from a door at the back. Whoever unlocks the door can expect a shower.

Barbon Close
Barbon Close

The name of the wheeler-dealer builder and insurance salesman, Nicholas Barbon appears in several places in London. Seeing the Great Fire of London as an opportunity, Barbon made a fortune in the massive wave of rebuilding that followed it. I was amused to see his name on this relatively modest site but still more interested in the business whose name plate appears above the street name.

Just a mission hall dated 1876
Just a mission hall dated 1876

There is no longer any sign of G. Bailey & Sons, just a mission hall (now offices) dated 1876. The Bailey family would have been in business at the interesting moment when motor cars were appearing but had not yet completely ousted the horse. Perhaps they hired out the new fangled vehicles as well as the more reliable horse-drawn carts.

Queen Square pump Queen Square pump
The Queen Square pump and its scary face

Pump lovers will recognize this one as the pump in Queen Square. A rather fine example with its own lamp on top, it has the same, rather scary, face on all four sides. How many people in more superstitious times were put off by it from drawing water, especially at night?

Queen Square garden
Queen Square garden

As you might guess from its name, Queen Square has a central garden. This is a pleasant enough example of a London square garden but this one has a rather touching monument in one corner.

Memorial to Patricia Penn Memorial to Patricia Penn
Memorial to Patricia Penn

This unusual memorial, from the local community, is to Patricia Penn (1914-1992), described as “Champion of Local Causes – and a cat lover”. The work is entitled Sam (after one of her own cats?) but I could see no name or signature of the artist who modelled the cat. It is a beautiful and lively reminder of an admired member of the community.

Victoria House
Victoria House overlooking Bloomsbury Square

I think that Queen Square could bear further examination and I noticed one or two points of interest that I might come back to another time. Now, though, we turned down towards Bloomsbury Square, whose garden is being remodelled to recover its original design, and entered Bloomsbury Way where we caught a bus home.

Despite the disappointment with the Foundling Museum and the cold (when will the milder weather come?) it had been an interesting day out. As usual, it had produced more questions than answers, providing material for further expeditions!

Victoria House

Copyright © 2011 SilverTiger, http://tigergrowl.wordpress.com, All rights reserved.

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A city ramble

Friday evening brings with it a delicious feeling of the end of a week of work. To celebrate, we often stop off on the way home for coffee and cake or a similar treat.

Polo 24 Hour Bar
Polo 24 Hour Bar

We started with coffee and buns in Polo 24 Hour Bar opposite Liverpool Street station on Bishopsgate. Polo is a long thin cafe with bright decor and an intimate feel.

Artwork in Broadgate Circus
Artwork in Broadgate Circus

We crossed back to the station and then through to Broadgate Circus where this artwork stands. Or is it a heap of rusty iron? How can one tell for sure?

Broadgate Circus
Broadgate Circus, the skating rink (sometimes)

Broadgate Circus, as its name implies, is a circular open space surrounded, on the lower level, by shops and restaurants and, on the upper, by office buildings. There is also a circular suspended garden.

Leaping Hare
Leaping Hare

This 1988 sculpture by Barry Flanagan is called Leaping Hare on Crescent and Bell. I rather like it, at least I like the hare. You’re not likely to mistake it for a heap of rusty iron, either.

Close-up of the hare

Here is a close-up of the hare, bounding along with such free, wild energy.

Bicycle park
Bicycle park

Serious attempts are being made (and serious money is being spent) to turn London into a bicycle-friendly city. The number of cycles on the roads (and, annoyingly, on the pavements) has greatly increased. Bicycle parks large and small are springing up everywhere. All it takes, after all, is a couple of metal stanchions to which bikes can be padlocked.

A pair of art works
A pair of art works

Out into the open again and another pair of art works. At least, I think that’s what they are. There is no descriptive panel indicating an artist’s name, so wild guesses are in order. Does a close-up help?

What is it?
What is it?

The City is dominated by new buildings. A few are quite pleasant to look at, though one suspects these are designs gone wrong as most modern buildings are pretty awful. The intention seems to be to shock and awe rather than to produce buildings that suit their environment and enhance the beauty of London.

Curved fish-tank but still fish-tank
Curved fish-tank but still fish-tank

A favourite family of designs is the fish-tank, as illustrated above, curvy fish-tank in this case, perhaps, but fish-tank nonetheless. Can you see this stuff still standing in 150 years?

Worship Street
Worship Street

You do still come across older buildings, gallantly surviving despite the mayhem all around them, buildings designed on the human scale, not heartless stacks of cells for workers imprisoned 40 stories up above the ground.

Obscured drinking fountain
Obscured drinking fountain

Even where they are preserved, like this drinking fountain with the unusual wooden door, which presumably gave access to the water supply, they are often neglected. This one is hidden behind refuse bins and its bowl is full of cigarette ends. Presumably staff use it as an ashtray during their cigarette breaks. It is this thoughtless disregard for our heritage that allows corporate philistinism and modern “architects” to degrade our environment.

Warehouse
Warehouse

We passed this grand old warehouse, used today as an office block. I like the way it has been painted blue. There would once have been a hoist serving to blue loading doors in the centre of the picture.

Lowndes House, "No 1 City Road"
Lowndes House, “No 1 City Road”

By the time we debouched onto City Road at Lowndes House, the light was beginning to fade. We decided it was time to take the bus home.

Triton House
Triton House

Waiting at the bus stop, I took my last photo, this one of the proud and elegant Triton House. The humanoid sculpture standing on a globe at the top of the tower is hard to see but always amuses me as he seems to wave at passers-by. I must try to get a closer view.

Copyright © 2011 SilverTiger, http://tigergrowl.wordpress.com, All rights reserved.

Posted in Out and About | Tagged , | 3 Comments

St John’s Gate

I went for a walk this morning, intending to visit the Museum of St John which is to be found at St John’s Gate, currently the HQ of the modern Order of St John and the world-renowned St John Ambulance.

1885 date tile
1885 date tile

Along the way I spotted this pretty date tile above a cafe on the corner of Goswell Road and Rawstorne Street. It has been standing up to the weather and city grime for about 126 years and seems set to carry on for another 126. I don’t know whether the tree has some special significance to the builder or the original occupiers of the site.

St John's Gate
St John’s Gate

This is St John’s Gate as seen from St John’s Lane. Even if you know it’s there, it comes as a striking sight when you round the corner and first see it.

The gate is part of the original Priory of St John, belonging to the Order of St John, founded in Jerusalem as one of the orders of Hospitaller Knights who cared for pilgrims to the Holy Land who fell ill during their trip.

The history of the Order is long and complex and as I don’t yet have it down pat, I prefer to leave it for another occasion when I have done sufficient homework on it.

After a series of moves, the Order arrived here, on land granted to it, and founded the priory. Then along came Henry VIII who dispossessed the Knights along with all the other religious houses. The building subsequently served a number if different purposes and belonged to a number of different people. Samuel Johnson worked here and the Gentleman’s Magazine was published here – incidentally the first journal to use the exotic word magazine to describe itself.

In 1874, the gatehouse was bought for the modern Order, now named the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St John and from here the St John Ambulance was launched in 1877.

From St John’s Lane, you walk through the arch and the entrance to the Museum of the Order of St John is just the other side of it. Admission is free and although donations are welcome, no pressure is put upon you to donate. The staff I met were extremely courteous and helpful.

If you are a keen photographer, you will not be at all surprised to hear that photography is not allowed inside the museum. Hence the lack of pictures in this post.

So, was it worth the trip? The museum covers the whole history of the ancient and modern Order of St John. Quite a lot of information is available if you are patient enough to absorb it. What I mean by that is that this museum is one of those where looping videos and boards covered in text outweigh the few actual exhibits. I am not sure how many rolling videos there were, perhaps a dozen or so. Exhibits include a few pieces of furniture, some medallions and similar objects, some costumes, and some miscellaneous artifacts such as porcelain. There are also some dummies dressed in the uniforms of the St John Ambulance.

When you visit a museum, especially a free one, I think you should simply accept what is there and not complain. After all, you are in a sense a guest. I was nonetheless a little disappointed even if that’s a little unfair of me.

There is a small museum shop and I hoped I might find an inexpensive paperback history of the Order. No chance. There were indeed books on sale but those that had price labels on them were expensive so I didn’t bother enquiring about those that had no labels. Even thin paperback books on knights and orders of chivalry, probably aimed at children, were priced at £11.90.

The building itself is in tip-top condition and a smell of newness pervades everywhere. Leading to the non-public areas there are beautiful wood and glass doors protected by electronic keypads and it all feels rather like a classy new hotel, despite the age of the outside brickwork. I paid the obligatory visit to the toilets before leaving and they were splendid too. You receive the very definite impression that the Order is not short of a bob or two.

What I did not see and was aching to see was the Church of St John. I had previously visited it from the outside and found it locked up as tight as Fort Knox. There are guided tours several times a week and I imagine it is by going on one of those that you have a chance to see the church. Maybe I will try to fit in a tour one day soon.

Copyright © 2011 SilverTiger, http://tigergrowl.wordpress.com, All rights reserved.

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Four for London

Everywhere the explorer of London goes, he continually discovers traces of its long and complex history. Another way of looking at London is to see it as a vast historical database whose data need to be investigated and deciphered in order to reveal their fascinating tales. Knowing where to find the necessary information is already a problem for the amateur but, fortunately, there is help at hand in the form of books.

There are four books that I use regularly that I show below. They do not answer all the questions but do at least get you started and, if further investigation is needed, suggest directions in which to go.

The London Encyclopaedia

The first is The London Encyclopaedia by Ben Weinreb, Christopher Hibbert, Julia Keay, and John Keay. The entries cover a wide range of subjects, including place names, people’s names, and names of institutions and monuments.  The weighty tome is illustrated with photos and reproductions of paintings reflecting the period under discussion. They are all monochrome, unfortunately, no doubt to keep costs down. There is an Index of People and a General Index, both very useful.

London Gazetteer

A recent acquisition is Chambers London Gazetteer by Russ Willey. There are two editions currently available and I bought the paperback 2007 version. The cover is in fact thick paper or card, a good idea in a book this size and weight. As the name suggests, the entries are generally place names, all the sorts of place names that Londoners generally bandy about, whether boroughs, named areas and even individual streets where these are well known. There is no index unfortunately.

There is a certain amount of overlap between these two titles but that should not put you off buying them. Coverage is never identical and by comparing both a more complete picture emerges.

Lost London 1870-1945

Lost London 1870-1945 differs from the preceding pair: it is not a reference book but a wonderful collection of photos covering the period indicated in the title. The high quality photos were commissioned by the old LCC, inherited by the GLC and then donated to English Heritage. They provide a remarkable record of the less affluent areas of London and there is a fascinating introduction, well worth reading for its own sake. It is edited by Philip Davies.

Nicholson Greater London Streetfinder Atlas

Online maps are useful but I also like paper maps. I find it satisfying to hold the book like this one on my lap or on the table and run my finger along the streets. Nicholson Greater London Streetfinder Atlas is a large format atlas which makes it easy to find even the smallest lanes and alleys. In full colour with glossy paper, it’s a pleasure to use. Once I have looked up my destination, I carry a small format A-Z London with me in case I need a reminder.

Even together these books do not form a complete kit for deciphering London’s history, of course, but they are useful and also provide browsing pleasure. They often answer questions or suggest further lines of enquiry to pursue.

Copyright © 2011 SilverTiger, http://tigergrowl.wordpress.com, All rights reserved.

Posted in Reviews | Tagged | 4 Comments

The philanthropist, the hole in the wall and the cat walker

Here are just a few curiosities from around Islington, collected yesterday and today.

sparrowgrass
Experimental grass for the sparrows

Sparrow notice

Yesterday evening we passed by Laycock Green where this little notice board stands amid a stretch of greenery. It tells us that this area of the Green has been sown with a variety of grasses and wild flowers as part of the project (in cooperation with the RSPB) to find out ways of encouraging house sparrows in the hope of halting the decline in their population. Underneath, an anonymous annotator has added the comment “excellent for BEES”.

Samuel Lewis Building
Samuel Lewis Building

My eye was then caught by these apartment blocks. Intended for people of modest means, they are unusually handsome and stylish. There are several similar blocks on this estate.

Window bearing Samuel Lewis's name
Window bearing Samuel Lewis’s name

Inscriptions over the windows facing the main road give a clue the the origin of the estate. It was built in 1910, financed by a trust set up in the will of Samuel Lewis. Lewis’s life corresponds exactly with the Victorian age for he was born in 1837 and died in 1901.

Born in Birmingham, Lewis started out selling steel pens, later opened a jeweller’s shop and eventually became a financier and, ultimately, a philanthropist. As a millionaire he was able to dedicate what was for the time a huge sum of money for the building housing for the poor. He might have been proud to know that this, his first building, is now Grade II Listed.

G.E. Adams, dairy and provisions
G.E. Adams, dairy and provision merchant

This morning I went off to Almeida Street, as I shall explain, and on the way saw this old shop in Theberton Street. Once a dairy and provisions shop, it seems to be a dwelling today, the original name sign protected by a thick layer of varnish.

pilaster lionface

At either side of the shop is a pair of pretty pilasters with a handsome lion’s face at the top. Note also the aeration grill running across the top of the window.

Almeida Passage Hole in the wall

Almeida Street is a cul de sac for traffic though not for pedestrians. Walk down to the end and you find this narrow walkway called Almeida Passage. At first out in the open, it then runs through the buildings, a fact that has gained it the popular local name of “the hole in the wall”. Inside the “hole”, the walls are painted black but the paint is very patchy. I suspect this is the result of painting over repeated graffiti.

Milner Square
Milner Square

The hole in the wall takes you into Milner Square. Like many Georgian squares, this one has a central garden surrounded on four sides by terraces of houses. These are unusually tall and imposing, in contrast to the garden which is dominated by a tennis court and is rather plain.

I was given to understand that this once upper crust neighbourhood had “gone down” and had become a dodgy area where disaffected youth lurked. I didn’t see anything of this during my visit but I did notice that every front door had at least two locks and usually three.

Gibson Square
Gibson Square

Next to Milner Square is Gibson Square. The garden is prettier and better tended than Milner Square’s but at the moment part of it is screened off by works whose nature I didn’t stop to find out.

While I was taking photographs, I noticed a lady sitting on a bench. Beside her was a long-haired cat and a few feet away, another similarly long-haired feline was grooming. Having given me the hard stare as cats are wont to do, they took no further notice of me and I did not intrude on their privacy either.

Walking the cat
Walking the cat

After a while, the lady got up from the bench and walked towards the gate. The cat followed along and it was obvious from the way that the human waited when the cat paused in its progress, that they were together. I thought how nice it was to be able to go for a walk in the park with your cat!

The Rainbow
The Rainbow

My last photo of the walk was this old pub, The Rainbow, dating from 1879. It stands on the corner of Liverpool Road and Barnsbury Street. No longer a pub, it has served as offices but I am not sure what it is used for at the moment. The pub, and the people who have worked or drunk in it, must collectively have lived through some momentous times. Will it ever become a pub again? On current showing, what with the decline in the industry, that seems unlikely.

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