Today we are staying in town. This will enable us to do some necessary chores such as the weekly shopping which we have been putting off. We had a leisurely breakfast at the Alpino in Chapel Market, then confronted the crowds at Sainsbury’s and carted our purchases home. After a little rest, we set out again, wandering more or less at random.
We caught a bus to Holborn and dropped into Caffè Nero. We had no plans and sitting around for a bit seemed as good a way as any to pass the time. Say “coffee house” and the first name that springs to mind is “Starbuck’s”. While this may be the largest chain, it was not the first to start up in the UK. Starbuck’s started here under that name only in 1998. Caffè Nero had already opened during the previous year.
Beating these by over a decade, however, Costa opened its doors in 1971 in Newport Street, the brainchild of brothers Sergio and Bruno Costa. I think Costa is currently my favourite with Nero coming second. I used to like Starbuck’s but, though I am sure they will deny it, my taste buds tell me their coffee has got weaker since the good old days.
Sociologically, the coffee houses are important. Where do you go to chat and hang out with friends? Up to the mid-20th century, the obvious answer was “the pub”. The coffee house changed that. Today they are crowded with shoppers, with people having time to waste and with students working on their laptops. The decline of the pub has been blamed on many things – the smoking ban, cheap booze in the supermarket, etc – but no one mentions the obvious: the coffee houses. Why else do you think that pubs now serve tea and coffee as well as alcohol?
Holborn isn’t exactly within earshot of the sea but that’s no reason for eschewing marine symbolism on its buildings, apparently. This is currently a branch of the Leeds Building Society – hardly associated with salt-sea adventures – but perhaps it once accommodated a shipping company or something of that ilk.
Further down the road is India House, home of the High Commission of India. Around two sides of the building is a set of plaques, of which I have shown four, which are the emblems of the Indian states and UTs. You can guess which is my favourite. They are colourful and very well made.
We pressed on down to the Strand and thus came to Somerset House. This is where national records used to be kept and where you came for a copy of your birth certificate or your grandad’s death certificate. I suspect a lot of people still think that is the case but the records office has moved out. Today, Somerset House describes itself as “a major arts and cultural centre in the heart of London”, a designation that it fully justifies.
We went inside for a quick look at some of the exhibitions. Nothing really took my fancy on this occasion, though photography is usually allowed. However, the staircase and its – to me – frightening well attracted my attention.
Strand station used to be a tube station like any other but then it was closed and barred to the public. Such dead stations are not as rare as you might think. They close for many reasons, usually because not enough people use them or they are thought to be too close to other stations to be worth keeping open. In some cases, the station building itself disappears while in others, as here, it remains but is blocked up. Some of them are available for use by film-makers and are occasionally opened for the public to visit. As pressure on public transport increases year by year, there are demands to open some of these sleeping beauties and put them back in service.
Then on to Whitehall, and Horseguards Parade where this lady flaunts her not inconsiderable charms in front of a government building. And not just any old government building, but the Ministry of Defence, no less. I half expected uniformed security officers to swarm out shouting “Oy! No photos!” but they didn’t. Incidentally, if you want to see a blog whose author has an eye – and a lens – for a good sculpture, you should pop over to Ornamental Passions, where the Min of Def has recently been discussed.
Around the corner is a small park or garden with the snappy name “Victoria Embankment Gardens Whitehall Extension”. Rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it? It contains, among other things, this monument to General Gordon. Military statues are generally much of a muchness but I rather like this one because of its informal pose. It is by Sir Hamo Thornycroft and was unveiled in 1888, so it has a comfortable patina of age upon it.
To see a more formal type of monument, you need walk just a few yards to this one, sculpted by William McMillan and unveiled by Prime Minister Harold McaMillan on July 19th 1961. The monument is boldly entitled “Trenchard 1873 – 1956”, though more information on the great man’s titles and achievements are given on the side of the plinth.
Though it was still early, we decide to turn for home. After all, you can do what you like on holiday, can’t you! There was, however, one more incident before we left the scene.
We walked up Richmond Terrace. Though you can’t see the barrier, because I took the photo over it, there is one. It closes off almost all the street but for a narrow passage. We noticed that there was a blue plaque on a wall on the other side though we could not read it at that distance.
Now, a blue plaque, like this one, affixed by the now defunct Greater London Council, is part of our cultural heritage. It was paid for and installed by my city out of taxes levied on its citizens. I should be able to approach and read that tablet and photograph it too.
There was a gap in the barrier, guarded by a man in uniform. I asked politely “May we go across and photograph the blue plaque, please?” I expected to be refused but even so, the blank “No”, pronounced with a smile as though I had asked something obviously stupid, still shocked me. “You can photograph it from here,” added Smiler.
I could have replied “I know I can. Here I am on the public highway and do not need your permission to take photographs, thank you very much” but it hardly seemed worth getting angry or self-righteous. I took my photo and left Smiler to his solitudinous guard duty.
The plaque, in case you cannot read it, bears the following inscription:
Greater London Council
Explorer and Writer
If Stanley were to return today, they wouldn’t let him approach his house and read the plaque in his own honour. Thus do politicians in the spurious name of security play fast and loose with our rights and freedoms.