Hidden London: Bloomsbury & Fitzrovia

It’s an odd experience when you follow a walk that includes both your street and your place of work. I suspect I hadn’t got round to doing the Bloomsbury & Fitzrovia walk because I figured I knew most of the facts the book would tell me. Unsurprisingly, I was wrong in my assumptions – I learnt a lot, and can now regale my family, friends and colleagues with new fun facts.

Thanks to the walk’s circular route, I was able to pick it up at the end of my street (where my almost-local pub was one of the listed highlights) and follow the loop around. Several of the listed places were simply roads, parks or squares that I’ve regularly travelled through (in fact, it included the three squares that form the backbone of my weekday running route), and as a result, I did skip bits.

The squares of Bloomsbury & FitzroviaSome of the squares of Bloomsbury/Fitzrovia: Gordon Square in the spring; Russell Square in the autumn; Bedford Square in mid-winter; and Fitzroy Square on a sunny Monday morning. 

The first surprise was that I learnt something new about my place of work! I was very pleased to see St George’s feature as a landmark on the walk and discovered that until 1875 the church hosted an annual Christmas dinner for chimney sweeps’ apprentices – according to the book the church ‘is still known as the chimney sweeps’ church’. I can’t say that it is, but I am aware of a plaque to chimney sweeps on the wall of the church kitchen.

St George's St George’s in the middle of winter – the only time it’s visible through the trees. 

I was also pointed towards a Ted Hughes quote in nearby Queens Square [incidentally, fascinating grammatical fact, the name does not have an apostrophe], forming part of a Jubilee memorial for the Queen (not the same Queen that the square is named for, obviously) and alluding to his ill-fated marriage to Sylvia Plath in the church. (This is my favourite St George’s fact, but other people in the church don’t like to mention it. However, having read the collected works & journals of Plath as a teenager, I was delighted to discover it.)

Queens Square Jubilee Monument

Very excitingly, one of my discoveries was London underground related! The book informed that the mysterious round buildings just off Tottenham Court Road, used as Eisenhower’s underground HQ during WW2, was originally a tunnel intended to be an express version of the Northern Line. An express Northern Line? Can you imagine the joy that would bring to commuters?!

Eisenhower Centre My main joy in this photo is the fact that ‘centre’ is spelt correctly, despite the American connotations! 

Then there’s the places I simply hadn’t heard of – like a hidden mews where the residents like to grow plants:

Coalville PlaceCoalville Place, just off Charlotte Street. 

Or Pollock’s Toy Museum and shop. I didn’t go in, but I admired the splash of colour it brought to an otherwise dull street:

Pollock's Toy Museum

When you know an area well, it’s also interesting what the book doesn’t choose to tell you. On this walk, you crossed Kingsway (the original, tram-related function of the Kingsway tunnel was referenced) to proceed across Red Lion Square to the Conway Hall. However, no mention was made of the interesting things to be found there. Admittedly, my initial excitement in discovering the square three years ago was fiction related. Fans of Ballet related literature of the twentieth century will no doubt be aware of the Drina Ballerina series, in which the erstwhile heroine attends a ballet school in no less a square than that of the Red Lion. For years as a child (and several as not quite a child) I revelled in the descriptions of Drina’s walk from Westminster to Kingsway. But there are other, factual facts of merit that could have been included.

For example, on the southern side of the square is a plaque marking a house in which the pre-Raphaelites lived – pretty notable, surely? Then there’s the statue at the main entrance to the square. Admittedly, I had to look it up, but the character depicted really is fascinating. Fenner Brockway is one of just a handful of ‘private’ individuals (as opposed to heads of state, etc) to have unveiled their own statue – largely owing to him living so long that the planning permission for a posthumous statue nearly ran out! He was an anti-war activist, politician and active member of the decolonisation campaign. The location of the statue is thanks to the square’s proximity to Conway Hall (a non-religious foundation and now home to The Sunday Assembly) and Brockway’s time as President of the British Humanist Association.

Fenner Brockway Red Lion SquareFenner Brockway, and the pigeons. 

Obviously, in some parts of London there are simply too many fascinating facts to include!

A tale of green bottles

Bloomsbury, generally, is a pretty peaceful place to live – especially when your flat is on a semi-pedestrianised street, a moderate distance from any of London’s main arteries.

LCS AutumnSee, beautifully tranquil…

Admittedly, there’s a wine bar over the road (a very, very classy wine bar – so classy, I’ve only been once), which has tables outside that are very loudly scraped across the pavement at the end of the evening, but its patrons are generally well behaved. The flat has its original single-glazed sash windows still in place, which mean there’s little insulation against street noise, but the bonus of this is that you can hear almost every word spoken at the wine bar’s outside tables, which has always got to be a good thing.

But – and this is a BIG but – there is one thing that shatters the otherwise tranquil peace of this little Bloomsbury street: the daily collection of empty wine bottles from the wine bar (and the restaurant opposite).

The van arrives promptly at 7.45am on weekdays, 8.45am on weekends. First, they empty each crate of empties into a wheelie bin. Imagine what that might sound like? 20 or so glass bottles falling into a container, then crate after crate falling in on top of them. Can’t quite picture it? Well, it’s LOUD. Sometimes, if there are a lot of empties, there are too many just for one bin, so the process gets repeated. You know what? It’s actually so loud that I can hear it while in the shower – which is five rooms back from the street-side windows.

When I first moved in, the church treasurer (who lives a few doors down the road) said I’d get used to it. In a way, I have. I don’t think I’ve yet slept through it, but it no longer shakes me awake with terror.

However, Saturday morning was a different matter. I’d been seriously under the weather last week and Friday had been the height of my unwell-ness – there had been tears in Waitrose of all places and I spent the evening under my duvet watching Alan Rickman strut his stuff. I’d taken a Tylenol PM (oh, precious stash of American pharmaceuticals) and managed the best night’s sleep I’d had in nearly a week. I awoke shortly before 8am on Saturday morning to the sound of smashing wine bottles, but it wasn’t the usual routine.

Someone was emptying crates of bottles into a bin, but then, for some unknown reason, was taking bottles one by one and smashing them on the side of the bin. The noise was echoing up and down the otherwise still and silent street. Unsurprisingly, it was doing my feverish state and headachy head no good whatsoever.

Logically, I decided to stand on my windowsill, open the window and yell – quite forgetting that a person who’s been coughing up their lungs for days is unlikely to have the vocal projection needed to shout across the street at someone engaged in a noisy task. But I did it anyway. As far as I can remember, I said something desperately sensible like: “Why are you smashing those one by one?!” I doubt he heard me though and, as my pathetic arms couldn’t close the window, I lay back down again. A couple of moments later I heard the recycling guy reply “well they shouldn’t have their windows open, innit” – in response to what I can only imagine was someone else having a go at him.

It seems my antics didn’t go unnoticed. On Saturday night, the lodger asked if I’d heard someone yelling at the recycling guy. She was rather impressed when I admitted it was me. I was quite impressed that she’d even heard me. We decided that if he reappeared, I’d run down the 6 flights of stairs and accost him at street level.

So, be warned Camden recycling guys – make unnecessary noise on a Saturday morning and you’ll have the wrath of a pyjama clad trainee vicar to contend with. And trust me, you don’t want to see my usual not particularly cheerful morning demeanour enhanced by an unwelcome alarm clock…

The One With the Extreme Ironing

Ever since I was 14, I’ve longed to live in a world that was basically an endless episode of Friends. Doesn’t that appeal to everyone at some point in their lives? There’s certainly a Friends quote for pretty much every occasion – in fact, it’s rare when they’re not appreciated.

There is, however, one aspect of the Friends world that I have not lusted after – beautiful loft apartment, awesome wardrobe, endless fun, seemingly free hot beverages, and hot men – yes; my very own Ugly Naked Guy – no.

My new flat is on the top floor of a super quaint building, in a charmingly lovely street. Above shops that sell ridiculously expensive things, are a whole host of flats that over look the pavements of Bloomsbury. Aware that my bedroom is rather visible, I’ve tried to be careful about keeping my curtains closed when changing clothes or wandering around naked. However, it seems that my opposite neighbour isn’t quite as careful…

On Monday morning I’d just returned from a breakfast date with our lovely American seminarians who were about to leave London and was dashing round the flat packing my bag for a few hours of diligent theological studying at a lovely coffee house. So far, already quite Friends-like. (Though I don’t recall any studying of theology in Central Perk.) Then I looked out of my bedroom window and there, lo and behold, was my very own naked guy.

Ironing.

I did what any sane person would do on sighting such a thing and finding themselves completely on their own – I told Twitter (and a few minutes later, told Facebook for good measure). I commented on the nakedness and the fact that surely ironing naked was rather dangerous. The responses this tweet garnered kept me entertained during my long wrangling with theologians. Women seemed to react with horror/amusement, while men tended to make comments on the seedier side of the spectrum…

Man #1: “What? Why is this not across my street?” 
[This particular guy would have the same interest in a naked man as I would.]

Man #2: “Dangerous? I’d say traumatising!”
[I’m not sure if he meant the ironing, or my sighting. But if the ironing went wrong, I’m sure it would be traumatising.]

Woman #1: “AHAHAHAHHAHAHA. He might be ironing his pants…”
[It’s the only logical explanation for naked ironing. But what’s the point in ironing pants?!]

Woman #2: “Think ugly naked guy used to do it in friends.”
[He probably did. I’m just glad Bloomsbury Naked Guy wasn’t doing some of UNG’s more questionable activities…]

Woman #3: “Ha! Anyone we know?”
[Fortunately not. But the church treasurer does live over the road…and several doors down. Thank goodness!]

Woman #4: “Have you fashioned a poking device?”
[If only the window had been open, and I’d stockpiled chopsticks.]

Man #3: “Life is too short to iron ones pants – which would be about the only excuse. Sure you’re not in an episode of Friends?”
[I quite agree – see above. And yes, this is clearly the point when my ambition became reality.]

Man #4: “Well, I don’t think you’ll go blind. Oh you mean for him.”
[I came up with several retorts to this tweet. I held fire on all of them…]

Man #5: “There are so many inappropriate answers to that…#tempting”
[I replied that he didn’t need to contribute – others were doing well on that front.]

Man #6: “Um, seriously, how long *is* it?”
Man #6 – again: “I mean, presumably you were worried it would get caught?? #ironsandwich”

It was those final tweets that got me. The second arrived 15 minutes after the first – presumably because their author thought I hadn’t understood his meaning the first time, when in fact I was simply buried in the intricacies of some New Testament Greek. Our exchange got a little personal…

Me: “Regardless of length, it’s surely a risk not worth taking?? I wouldn’t do it…”
Him: “yeah, but you’re dyspraxic…”
Me: “Well, ironing sans bra would certainly be a risk…”
Oh so slightly inappropriate for a public forum.

Anyway, the real question is what to do next? Obviously, I’ve been checking that window at sporadic intervals – not to get another eyeful, I’ll assure you – but to see if I can see him fully clothed, or so he can see me and realise just how easy it is to be seen from across the street. Perhaps I should put a note up in my window alerting him to his exhibition? But do we really want the amusing Bloomsbury Naked Guy sightings to end? It’s a tough call.

Who knew life in Bloomsbury could be quite so exciting?

Bloomsbury…

…it’s another world.

You may be aware that I’ve been in the process of moving house recently. The packing began pre-Texas and the actual removal began 48 hours after touching down at Heathrow. If ever there was something likely to shatter all a holiday’s residual benefits, it’s moving house! My beautifully tanned arms are now spattered with gruesome bruises from carrying boxes and furniture up interminable stairs. (My new flat has 60 steps up to it – my legs are going to be awesome by the end of these two years!) The number of unopened packing boxes is now in single figures, so I’m getting there, but it’s been an interesting couple of weeks. Oh, and there’s no ‘proper’ internet until Tuesday. Not going to lie, I’m counting the hours.

I’ve only moved 10 minutes down the road, away from King’s Cross and towards Holborn, but it’s like a different world. I now inhabit a rather lovely semi-pedestrianised street in the heart of Bloomsbury and it’s almost as though I’ve arrived in a village somewhere rural. People talk to you! The first couple of days in my building, I bumped into some children who live below me. My first interaction with the eldest (who’s about nine) went as follows:
Him: “You must be the new neighbour.” [His Dad had spotted me carrying boxes the day before.]
Me: “Yes, I’m living upstairs.”
Him: “I hope you’ll be very happy here!”
Super sweet!

The next day, Monday – en route to college, I passed the family on the stairs. They were chattering away in a ‘have you got everything for school?’ way and I hadn’t realised that the father had spoken to me until the elder son looked at me and said “he asked if you knew the pocket on your bag was open?” (I did – it’s where my keys were going back into and my Oyster card coming out of). Such caring is rarely seen in the wilds of central London!

I now live somewhere where it’s unusual not to bump into a church member during the day. There’s a logical venue for a quick cup of tea (or slow cup of tea given its wifi access and my desperate need for it), from whose windows I can people watch and spot even more familiar faces. Is this normal for the rest of the world?

As if to celebrate my arrival in the community and to emphasise the village-like quality of these streets, today was Queen’s Square Fair day, a highlight in the Holborn calendar and something I was told I really shouldn’t miss. In fact, it was likened to something out of Midsummer Murders – just without the deaths. The church was responsible for the cake stall and would be hosting a ballet display, but all sorts of other things were likely to happen…

It got off to a great start with a man in a van knocking out some tunes with a banjo; progressed through some fabulous cakes (those in the photo are cake pops – seriously awesome); had some fantastically random sights – like the vintage mannequin; and included some varied entertainment, the highlight of which was a group of old ladies line dancing to 90s hit Cotton Eye Joe. Hilarious.

Thanks Bloomsbury. I think I’m going to be very happy here.