Saturday, 28 September 2013

Thoughts from a Walk through London: the Lie of the Land

A 5.30 start, a walk in the dark, and very soon the rain, to the park-and-ride (no discount for those of us who don't take up a car park space), and so to the big city for a day's training with the Citizen's Advice Bureau at their headquarters in Pentonville Road. I'd only come across Pentonville Road before in Monopoly - it's one of the pale blue ones on the side between Go and Prison. Possibly appropriate. But the walk began at Marble Arch, quite the other end of the Monopoly board, in the Duke of Westminster's Mayfair estate. He inherited this from a Mary Davies, a scrivener's daughter, many years ago, who caught the eye of the Grosvenor heir (they weren't dukes then, they weren't rich enough) and in the fullness of time they married, and as a dowry she brought a "swampy mead" for cattle in a most unpromising place on the very far west edge of London. That swamp is now Mayfair, and Mary from the Dairy is remembered in Davies Street, and her senior descendant is very rich indeed.

Normally, I would keep heading towards Soho and S. Giles, but my appointment was further north, so I strayed onto two other ducal estates - Devonshire and Portland. They are the Cavendishes, and Cavendish-Bentincks, so one can only assume they must have been united in matrimonial money at some point or other. Grand squares, and wide streets, nearly all now occupied by business interests of some kind of another. Portland Place has quite a showing of consulates and embassies and High Commissions, and there are one or two other more worthy presences, but generally, this is now about big money, when once it would have been about places to live for those with comfortable incomes. I stumbled across Wigmore Street where I was taken for an eye test at the age of ten, and the optician diagnosed what another had prognosed when I was a toddler, that I was very short-sighted. I walked around the shop wearing those rather spooky diagnostic frames, and asked my parents "are you really meant to be able to see all this?" It was quite a revelation. I cried at the thought of a life sentence of wearing spectacles, but now, although I could not do without them, I don't think I would, either. They have become a part of me.

And so across the boundary onto a fourth Ducal estate, the Russells, Dukes of Bedford. My beloved parish of S. Giles-in-the-Fields was in their patch, although the church was founded in 1101, long before anyone had heard of anyone called Russell. Not even Russell Brand. The Russells invented Covent Garden and Bloomsbury, and pocketed the change and built Woburn Abbey with it. The Bedford Estate is a bit downmarket, though, compared to the other ducal fiefdoms, as some bits, like Seven Dials (where I lived as a curate) and "the rookeries" (where New Oxford Street was built to cover them over) were dead rough. A Victorian writer observed of Seven Dials "there may be as many as thirty persons dwelling in one room, strangers both to hygiene, and decency".

There is one lovely little feature of the Bedford Estate which I remember with delight from when I lived nearby. In Russell Square, there is a rather modern building, erected under the auspices of the University of London, whose heartland it is, which has two plaques on its front wall. One is a solemn apology for going ahead with the edifice without the proper consent and approval of the Russells. The other is a glowing architectural award for excellence. Someone's little joke at the expense of the coroneted landed interest.

And so further through the London Borough of Camden, and over the border into Islington. And yet another ducal estate, one I wasn't expecting, but the Northumberland Arms, and Great Percy Street, and Percy Circus, must surely indicate that the Dukes of Northumberland had a claim at one time at least, to this rather mankier estate. But there appear to be other estates too - council and Peabody Trust ones - marked by tall, handsome, blocks, making good use of the land available, and making it available to all and sundry, on the grounds that common decency demanded everyone have a little bit of space to call their own, and not to have to share it with twenty-nine others. It seemed to me that Islington Council may still have many tenants of the kind for whom these blocks were originally built.

There is a leveller here - rich or poor, all live in tall buildings, and none have any but communal gardens. At one of the primary schools which came within the scope of the William Shelton Educational Foundation (of which I was briefly a trustee), the headmistress explained the importance of the school playground - "most of the children have nowhere to run and have had little practice, and so the accident book is full of injuries from children running into walls they reached rather sooner than they expected. They learn fast." Such allocation of the land was the only way to fit so many people into such a small space, and to do so with both decency and hygiene. I doubt that - these days - the smart apartments of Mayfair and Belgravia are (in the main) massively bigger than some of the council flats of Camden and Islington. You pay for the address, not the space; the postcode snobbery which greases the wheels of the grasping property market, and not just in London. Property is one of those peculiar investments in which absolutely no one has to do any work to deserve the profit they make (and for remarkably little risk). It is enough merely to own, those around you will do the rest, and prices rise.

And so to Myddleton House, the headquarters of the CAB, although they are soon to move to the even more upmarket City of London. Many of those landowning aristocrats were philanthropists too, as were Peabody, and those who built the council blocks, and they must surely have hoped that these many years later there would be no need of advice for those who can't afford to pay for it, to ward off poverty, control debt, discover their legal rights, and so on. But to their dismay, these things are needed more now than ever, in our complicated, fast-moving, times. So, I had crossed five ducal estates, in the nation's biggest, darkest, richest, city, to learn how to stand up for my fellow peasants against the might of power, land, and money. O how times have changed!

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Baywswater, Oxford
September 2013

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