A Straight Line Walk Across London

by Paul K Lyons

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Kip Fenn
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56 - From the Ministry of Truth, past Ghandi to a legacy of Theosophy

Across Montague Place, the King Edward VII extension is faced by one side of Senate House, a tall, undecorated yet monumental building that would look more at home in New York than in London. It was designed by Charles Henry Holden, an architect who was responsible for many functional looking London Underground stations. Senate House opened as the administrative centre for the University of London in the 1930s. London's university, although launched late, in 1826, compared with capital city universities elsewhere in Europe (presumably because of the excellence to be found in Oxford and Cambridge), has since accumulated a wide range of excellent colleges, not least University College, King's, London School of Economics and Imperial College. Somewhat ironically - the University having waited so long for a permanent base - Senate House was taken over by the government three short years after it was opened to be used temporarily as a base for the Ministry of Information during the war. George Orwell is said to have based his Ministry of Truth in the novel '1984' on the place.

Weaving through the parked coaches, I walk across Montague Place (and the green cycle path that runs along the centre of the road) and turn left into Russell Square, which is the name of the road that runs all around Russell Square Gardens. These were originally laid out in 1800 on land owned by the Duke of Bedford (family name Russell) to a design by the famous landscaper Humphrey Repton. There would have been good views towards the Hampstead and Highgate hills in the northwest at the time. After Lincoln Inn Fields, the Square is the second largest in London. A recent refurbishment, financed by the Heritage Lottery Fund grant and Camden's Urban Parks Programme, restored the garden to Repton's layout. However, very little of the original architecture around the square has survived. It was also from the Bedford Estate that the University of London acquired the land for Senate House and many of its buildings in the vicinity.

Along the west edge of the Square, Stewart House is home to Edexcel, a name derived from contracting 'educational excellence'. The organisation was formed in 1996 by a merger of Business & Technology Education Council (known as BTEC) with the University of London Examinations and Assessment Council. The history of the latter can be traced back to 1836 when the University of London was granted its royal charter for conducting exams and conferring degrees. North of Edexcel and a wide driveway to Senate House, there are a few Georgian buildings (built by James Burton) which date back to the early 19th century, although some ornamentation was added in the Victorian era. These house, for example, the Institute of Germanic Studies and the Institute of Commonwealth Studies. The northwest corner of Russell Square, and the whole western side of Bedford Way, along which I do not dawdle, is taken up by the Institute of Education, completed in 1977 to a design by the Sir Denys Lasdun, who also created the National Theatre. It's a long low building of glass and concrete, devoid of any decoration, and definitely functional rather than attractive.

The east side of Bedford Way is filled by another functional building, almost as long, older, but no more attractive. This is the grandly-named Royal National Hotel, the largest hotel in central London, and capable of sleeping in excess of 2,000 guests. Basic prices start at £65 a night for a single room and £85.00 for a double. Given its size, the hotel also hosts many events, such as Jewish Book Week, Festival of Holistic Living, International Napoleonic Fair, Easter Festival of Bridge, and 'Dealing Effectively With Unacceptable Employee Behaviour'.

Bedford Way runs northwest away from the 300 easting, and so, on meeting the junction between the roads Gordon Square and Tavistock Square, I turn right into Tavistock Square. Somewhat confusingly, the road 'Gordon Square' runs all around gardens of the same name (developed as part of the Bedford Estate in the early 19th century and now managed by the University of London), and then northeast for a block, until it reaches Tavistock Square. On this latter part of the road can be found the Percival David Foundation which boasts 'the finest collection of Chinese ceramics outside China' and a library of East Asian and Western books relating to Chinese art and culture - both presented to the University of London in 1950 by the late Sir Percival David.

Tavistock Square was named after the Marquess of Tavistock, who - as it happens - was also Duke of Bedford, and thus owner of the land. Thomas Cubitt designed the square and the rather stunning original Georgian terrace, built in the 1820s, along the west side, which is much better preserved than most of Cubitt's work in Clapham Park. There are 17 houses in the terrace. The five centre ones are crowned with a balustraded parapet, and there is symmetrical use of ionic columns and pilasters across the whole of the terrace. None of the original east side of Tavistock Square including Tavistock House, built 20 years earlier than the terrace by James Burton, survives. In the centre of the gardens, there is statue of Gandhi, sitting cross-legged, by sculptor Fredda Brilliant.

Tavistock House was the home of James Perry, the first editor of 'European Magazine', and of Charles Dickens who wrote 'Bleak House', 'Little Dorrit' and 'Hard Times' while living there. In its place today is a large red brick building, with some character, designed by Lutyens for the Theosophical Society before the First World War (Lutyen's wife being a Theosophist). Building work was interrupted by the war, and the army pay office took over the incomplete structure. After the war, the Theosophical Society could no longer afford to complete the buildings, and so it was sold to the British Medical Association (BMA) for £50,000 with a 200 year lease from Bedford Estates at a ground rent of £1,600. The BMA recommissioned Lutyens to finish the building, and, later, other architects were employed to extend it. The association purchased the freehold of the site in 1962.

 A Straight Line Walk Across London - along the 300 easting

by Paul K Lyons
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