A Straight Line Walk Across London

by Paul K Lyons

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34 - Covent Garden traffic, the Chuch Commissioners' assets, and Battersea's ugly duckling

I am not happy being in the Wandsworth Road, back with traffic again. A 1930s building that looks like it should have been a cinema once now calls itself the South Bank Club and offers 'friendly affordable fitness'. It also claims to be 'the largest squash and fitness centre in London'. Behind it is New Covent Garden Market. The famous market moved here, to the Nine Elms site, from Covent Garden where it had enlivened the streets for centuries, in 1974. Trading takes place from 3:00am to 11:00am Monday to Friday and, because traders like a lie in at the weekend, from 4:00am to 10:00am on Saturday. Some 4,500 vehicles (rising to 7,000 during peak periods) drive in to the lorry and car parks every business day. Their drivers and passengers can purchase up to 160 different types of fruit and 180 varieties of vegetables. Of late, the future of this market and London's wholesale markets in general has been under discussion. An independent review in 2002 recommended New Covent Garden Market should continue but that it needed to diversify. The government backed that approach. It also confirmed a long-held intention to dispose of its ownership of the market as soon as suitable arrangements can be made for the future.

A swathe of blue netting covers the scaffolding on a large mansion block on the east side of Wandsworth Road. This is owned by the Church Commissioners for England, an organisation based at 1 Millbank, whose mission is 'to support the Church of England's ministry, particularly in areas of need and opportunity'. In effect, its job is to manage the church's assets as efficiently as possible so as to pay for its clergy and buildings now and sustainably in the future. The Church Commissioners are, in fact, individuals appointed by the Church or the Queen who sit on a Board of Governors chaired by the Archbishop of Canterbury. At the end of 2002, the Church Commissioners assets were reported as totalling approximately £3.5 billion, £1 billion more than 10 years ago; and its residential property was valued at £315m more than double that of 10 years ago.

Behind me, the Battersea Power Station, a London landmark for 70 years, still dominates the view. Designed by Sir Giles Scott, its first generating units began operation in 1933. At the time, there was fierce opposition to the project, not least from the Archbishop of Canterbury. The owner, London Power Corporation, met some of the criticism by pioneering a system for removing most of the sulphur produced by the burning of coal. The plant suffered damage during the war but, nevertheless, kept going, a symbol of Londoners' spirit in the Blitz. During the post-war reconstruction, London Power introduced a district heating scheme - the first in the country - providing 11,000 people in Pimlico with heating and domestic hot water. In the early 1950s, after the power industry had been nationalised, the Central Electricity Generating Board brought a final generating unit into operation. This made Battersea the third largest station in the country with a capacity of 509 megawatts - burning some 10,000 tons of coal a week. When, in 1980, reporters started predicting the plant's closure, a new phenomenon occurred: the start of a campaign to save Battersea Power Station. One newspaper joked that it was an ugly duckling that had turned into a swan. In August 2000, Wandsworth Council approved a £500m redevelopment scheme for the site, including hotels, a theatre, cinema, flats, a dedicated rail link from Victoria station, rooftop restaurants, and retention of the chimneys. A legal challenge to the planning decision was rejected by the High Court in October 2003.

The Wandsworth Road takes me away from the 300 easting, but I need to cross the Thames and it is Vauxhall Bridge, at the north end of Wandsworth Road, which will bring me back to the line of my walk. First, though, I pass by a modern Sainsbury's (the Nine Elms branch) with a raised railway line running behind it. In the car park, I find a dozen recycling bins: shoes, clothing (two), green glass (three), clear glass, brown glass, paper (four). This is a good idea - surely all reasonably-sized supermarkets should be obliged to make room for recycling bins. I pass Wyvil Road on the east side, and, an office block occupied by e-doc.

Just before the railway bridge, a metal gate looks as though it leads to an area of wasteland, but not so. Above the gate a banner advertises 'The Renaissance Rooms' with 'night club, function rooms, roller-skating, corporate hire'. Next to it, rather oddly, a second banner (which looks like it has been there for some time) says: 'Welcome to Vauxhall Grammar School disco - the best days of your life'. Inside, somewhat oppressed by the tall and grey Keybridge House behind, and the railway line to the side, there is indeed a building. It looks like an extended bungalow or village hall that has been deposited there by chance (not unlike Doctor Who's Tardis materialising in a bit of wasteland convenient for filming).

North of the railway bridge, the egg-box roof of the flower market is just visible on the west side of the Wandsworth Road, and, on the east side, there's a spruced up Georgian terrace. Also also here is a less-than-pretty vertical wave of concrete and glass which houses Cap Gemini Ernst & Young, 'a provider of consulting, technology and outsourcing services'. But this is only one of its 15 UK offices. Worldwide, it employs approximately 50,000 people and produces global revenues in the region of Eur7 billion. In December 2003, the Inland Revenue announced that Cap Gemini Ernst & Young UK was its preferred supplier for a £3 billion (£3 billion!) outsourcing contract. Opposite a wide billboard advertises the final series of 'Friends'.

 A Straight Line Walk Across London - along the 300 easting

by Paul K Lyons
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