A Straight Line Walk Across London

by Paul K Lyons

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58 - From the Burston Strike to the British Library with a taste of liquorice and dance

Since arriving in central London, now conveniently defined by the Congestion Charging Zone, I've passed through areas which could be called churchland, theatreland and universityland, and now it seems, in Mabledon Place, I'm striking a mini-tradeunionland (the Trades Union Congress long since stranded in the middle of luxuryhotelland). Within a few yards of each other are a 1913 building housing the National Union of Teachers (NUT), and Unison's tall grey high rise tower.

The National Union of Elementary Teachers formed in 1870, then, after deciding it didn't like the epithet 'elementary', became the NUT in the late 1880s. After two previous homes, it settled in Hamilton House, Mabledon Place, during 1915, where it has remained ever since. The year before, 1914, saw the start of one of the most celebrated events of trade union history: the Burston Strike. Children at the Burston School, about 20 miles south of Norwich, went on strike in support of their teachers. The action lasted through until 1939 and is considered as the longest strike in the history of the working class movement. Since 1984, there's been an annual commemorative rally and picnic on Church Green in front of the Strike School. Past speakers have included Tony Benn and Ken Livingstone. More recently, the NUT has been in the news for attacking government plans to tackle truancy and anti-social behaviour with fines.

Unison is the country's biggest union, with over 1.3 million members. It was formed in 1993 through a merger of the National Union of Public Employees, the Confederation of Health Service Employees and the National and Local Government Officers' Association. Two-thirds of its member are women. During a couple of days in February, it put out the following press releases: 'BNP 'poison' must not spread in June elections'; 'Scottish nursery nurses will be on all-out strike from 1 March'; and 'Casualty staff to get multilingual aid to speed emergency treatment'.

On the corner of Mabledon Place and Bidborough Street, is the less tall, but equally grey, Camden Housing building. But, going back again to the first half of the 19th century, the Bidborough Riding School was built here. In 1859, the building was bought by Thomas Voile, a chemist and apothecary, the founder of Voile and Wortley. Before being knocked down, Voile and Wortley, in its last incarnation, was manufacturing liquorice. Opposite Bidborough Street, a little tucked away down Flaxman Terrace, is the glass-walled back of The Place - one of London's most vibrant dance centres. The building, designed by Robert Edis and opened by the Prince of Wales in 1889 as the home of the Middlesex Artists' Rifle Volunteers, faces onto Dukes Road, from where the heads of Mars (god of war) and Minerva (goddess of wisdom) can still be seen on the Victorian facade. On 7 June 2003, the The Place's junior and postgraduate dance groups performed new works specially created to celebrate the British Museum's 250th anniversary.

Mabledon Place takes me out of the Congestion Charging Zone and into the very busy Euston Road. Northward, in the direction I must head, the urbanscape is filled by two contrasting buildings - the very late-20th century British Library and the very Victorian-Gothic St Pancras - both magnificent in their own ways. Some 250 years ago, though, there wasn't even a proper thoroughfare here. In 1756, Parliament approved a new road to lead from Paddington to Islington. In order to meet concerns put forward by the Duke of Bedford, the law also stipulated that there should be no buildings on new foundations within 50 feet of the road. Consequently, the New Road, as it was called, which cut through the Skinner's Company Estate, developed into a residential area with long front gardens. The British Library and St Pancras are sited, approximately, where two terraces - Judd Place West and Judd Place East - once stood.

The terraces, and Judd Street, which runs parallel to Mabledon Place, are named after Sir Andrew Judd, a Lord Mayor of London in the mid-16th century. He was also six times Master of Skinner's Company, one of the so-called Great Twelve livery companies, with 700 years of history. In the past, it governed the use, production and sale of furs for trimming the garments of people in high ranks. Today, it has transformed itself into a company managing property and charitable trusts. Sir Andrew Judd, who bought the Sandhills estate from James Gates and Thomas Thorogood for £346 and who died in 1558, bequeathed it to Skinner's Company as trustees for the benefit of Tonbridge School.

Three hundred years later, a part of the site was sold by Skinner's Company to Midland Railway Company. Until then, Midland had been sharing Great Northern Railway's terminus at King's Cross (built in the 1840s on the site of a former smallpox hospital), two hundred yards east. First, Midland built the enormous glass and iron train shed - just one of so many Victorian engineering feats. Then, after a design competition, it engaged Sir George Gilbert Scott as architect for a hotel to front the station. As is well known, this hotel ended up with a similar look - a kind of high Gothic - to the one he had planned for Whitehall almost exactly two miles south on the 300 easting. In his personal recollections, Scott later admitted that the building was probably 'too good for its purpose', and that, having been disappointed by Lord Palmerston over the government offices, he was happy to have a chance to demonstrate his style.

To the west of the station, a rhomboid shaped area of land had long been used as a railway goods yard before the government, in the mid-1970s, paid £6m to secure it for a new British Library. The Library had been chronically short of space for many years, but several alternative plans for expansion had been rejected. One was to focus lending activities at its site in Boston Spa, and to expand with a new building in Bloomsbury, near the British Museum, for research. Colin St John Wilson, an architect who had worked with the British Museum on previous projects, drew up the plans for the St Pancras site. Initial costs were estimated at £150m but after delays, complaints and controversy the final cost was more than three times that - £500m.

Queen Elizabeth II opened the new building on 25 June 1998. Her son, Prince Charles, who had interfered some years earlier over the plans for a National Gallery extension, likened the St John Wilson design to an academy for secret police. Others have criticised it as reminding them of a prison, a Tesco's supermarket, or a factory. It's true that the building does have stark expanses of brickwork with long horizontal edging that somehow seem to challenge perspective, and an expansive courtyard that is empty and unwelcoming in the cold winter months. It's also clear that no effort has been made to pretty-up the building's exterior. But, surely, when public money is at stake, and so much of it, decoration is a luxury 20th century Elizabethans cannot afford. And, in fact, perhaps the building does need to operate as a kind of prison or lock-up (since it contains some of the most valuable books in the world), and a supermarket (since so many people wish to use its services), and as a factory, since so much academic work is produced here, or based on the knowledge stored.

There is much more to praise inside. A permanent exhibition room, open to the public, displays one of the four original Magna Cartas, a Gutenberg Bible and the Diamond Sutra, which dates back to the 9th century, and is said to be the oldest surviving printed book.

 A Straight Line Walk Across London - along the 300 easting

by Paul K Lyons
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