Tooting Bec

Preceding station: Tooting Broadway

Tooting Bec Common, yesterday

Tooting Bec Common, yesterday

The author Thomas Hardy is inextricably associated with Wessex, setting his novels in a fictionalised version of that part of England. However, for a brief period from 1878 to 1881, he had a house on Trinity Road in Tooting.

The move was brought about by professional considerations – in those pre-telephone, pre-Internet days, organising his literary affairs from the West Country was a bit of a pain in the old backside, and so he came to Tooting in order to be closer to his London publishers.

The experience was not a happy one, though it would be unfair to put the blame on Tooting Bec. Hardy was undergoing marital troubles, and his books published while living here received mixed reviews. After a fairly brief period, he declared that London was “a monster with four million heads and eight million eyes.” In 1880 he suffered an internal haemorrhage and decided that that was the last straw, moving back to Dorchester – a situation we might call “the return of the native,” if we wanted to show everyone how well-read we are. I wouldn’t stoop so low.

Hardy’s time here in South London gave us The Trumpet Major and A Laodicean. It also yielded a rather sad poem called Beyond the Last Lamp (near Tooting Common).

Next station: Balham

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Blackfriars (District Line)

Change for Circle Line

Preceding station: Temple

Blackfriars Bridge
Blackfriars Bridge is one of my favourite bridges across the Thames, aesthetically speaking. However, that’s not what I’m here to talk about.

Aesthetics aside, Blackfriars Bridge has a somewhat gruesome claim to fame. In 1982, a gentleman was found hanged from the bridge. Suicides from the bridges across the Thames are, sadly, not unusual. What marked this one out was the identity of the dead man.

He was Roberto Calvi, a banker of some significance. He was chairman of the Banco Ambrosiano, a venerable institution with significant dealing with the Vatican. Also heavily involved were the P2 Freemason lodge and the Mafia. In other words, the bank was all of a conspiracy theorist’s birthdays come at once.

With such heavy-hitters, in many cases literally, you would think that a chap would be a bit careful what he did with their money. You would not expect him, for instance, to siphon off large amounts of money and cause the collapse of Banco Ambrosiano, yet that was what Calvi was found guilty of doing in 1981, with the collapse coming the following year.

Calvi was found dead beneath the bridge on 18th June 1982, shortly before the collapse, his pockets stuffed with bricks and hard cash. A verdict of suicide was initially reached, but further investigation showed that Calvi’s body did not display any of the signs consistent with hanging. It was also noted that he had fled Italy a few days before under a false passport, which doesn’t exactly suggest a carefree city break was planned. In 2003, the investigation was reopened as a murder trial. A number of arrests were made, but all suspects were acquitted.

The full truth will likely never be known, but when you manage to upset the Vatican, the Mafia and the Freemasons, the chances are you won’t get off with a slap on the wrists. One last detail is worthy of note. The Masonic lodge P2, of which Calvi was a member, was also known as the frati neri – the Black Friars.

Next station: Mansion House

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Chancery Lane

Preceding station: St Paul’s

Chancery Lane and its environs are rich in heritage, from the jeweler’s quarter in Hatton Garden to the market at Leather Lane. Less well known is what lies beneath the Tube station.

It all started during the Second World War, when a number of Underground stations had deep-level air raid shelters built beneath them (on the subject of which more anon). Chancery Lane was one of these. The shelter was never used as such, and in 1949 London Transport seem to have more-or-less said, “Well, blowed if we know what to do with it,” and handed it over to the Post Office. While the sensible thing to do would have been to use it for storing junk mail where it couldn’t annoy anyone, the Post Office had other ideas.

trefoilSo it was they commenced a programme of expansion and reconstruction, and turned it into the Kingsway Telephone Exchange. This was a communications hub, but had a secondary purpose in the event of the Cold War turning hot. The idea was that in the event of a nuclear war, it would form part of a bombproof telecommunications network, linking up with similar exchanges in Manchester and Birmingham. To this end, it was equipped with an artesian well, several months’ worth of food rations and even a licensed bar (because if the world’s just ended, you’re sure as hell going to want a Scotch).

It was closed down in the early 1980s, ironically due to the risk of poisoning from blue asbestos. In 2008, the whole site was put up for sale, but I’ve been unable to ascertain who bought it. Probably one of those Bond villains we keep hearing about.

Next station: Holborn

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Latimer Road (Hammersmith & City Line)

Change for Circle Line

Preceding station: Wood Lane

London Underground has no shortage of wildlife, from mosquitoes to mice to pigeons. The Latimer Road area made a unique contribution to this urban menagerie in November 1926, when a monkey jazz band escaped. I am not a “music person,” so I don’t know if “monkey jazz” is a genre in its own right or what. Two of them took refuge in the arches under Latimer Road Station and the band’s leader, Franko, took a train to Paddington.

jazz monkey

This is a chimp, not a monkey. Also, it appears to be stoned off its face.

The monkeys’ owner received a telegram from Rugby some days later, informing him that his errant simian conductor had shown up there and would be coming to Euston by the next available train. This followed sightings of the monkey as far afield as Brentford, Ealing and Brixton, which frankly raises questions as to how many monkeys there were roaming the streets of London in the 1920s. It’s like Planet of the Apes, only with a more upbeat soundtrack.

Next station: Ladbroke Grove

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Preceding station: Vauxhall

In 1901, an extemely innovative venture was proposed for this part of London. The concept was nothing less than a high-speed electric monorail from Lupus Street in Pimlico to the Metropole in Brighton. This would have taken, so said the proposal, a mere 32 minutes to make the normally sluggish journey from capital to coast. The idea was rejected, not least of all because there was already a similar proposal in the works (which, as you’ve no doubt worked out, also came to nothing in the end). The concept went through various permutations, but was eventually nixed completely due to the rising cost estimates and the fact that the wealthy folk of Brighton were not enamoured with the idea of large numbers of tourists being able to get to them so quickly and affordably.

This is an extremely slow speed monorail, so not entirely appropriate for this entry.

This is an extremely slow speed monorail, so not entirely appropriate for this entry.

Five years after the initial proposal, another innovative transport scheme for the London-Brighton route was also turned down. While Lord Montagu’s futuristic proposal was undoubtedly intriguing, it was felt that there was no place in Britain for the so-called “motor way.”

Next station: Victoria

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Piccadilly Circus (Piccadilly Line)


Change for Bakerloo Line.

Preceding station: Green Park

The statue of Eros in Piccadilly Circus is one of the best-known landmarks in London. Or is it? Actually, it may surprise you to learn that it doesn’t depict Eros at all.

Some readers may chuckle and say, “Of course not, for it is actually the Angel of Christian Charity.” Nope, not that either.

It is, in fact, Eros’ brother, Anteros, and was erected in 1893 memory of the philanthropic politician Lord Shaftesbury (after whom the Avenue is named). Eros is better known as Cupid, and represents selfish love. His unimaginatively named twin brother represents unselfish love, and as such is far more appropriate as a symbol of philanthropy.

If you want, you can just call the whole thing “the Shaftesbury Memorial.”

Next station: Leicester Square

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Ravenscourt Park

Preceding station: Stamford Brook

Ravenscourt Park Station is actually older than Ravenscourt Park. It was originally opened by the Metropolitan District Railway under the name Shaftesbury Road in 1873. The park was opened in 1888, and the station was accordingly renamed.

The Wife of Bath

The Wife of Bath

Long before the park was there, back in the 14th century, the Ravenscourt Park area was the site of the home of Alice Perrers, mistress to King Edward III. She was something of a shrewd businesswoman, acquiring a great deal of land and property through a combination of nifty financial manoeuvring and her many useful contacts. She was able to overcome the traditional prejudice against women in society largely thanks to her relationship with Edward III – after his death, she was banished by Parliament, her extensive lands forfeit. Literary speculation has it that Geoffrey Chaucer used her as the model for the similarly shrewd Wife of Bath in The Canterbury Tales.

Not too far from the station, on Upper Mall, is The Dove. This is a pub with two claims to fame – it has the smallest bar in Britain, just 33 square feet. Upstairs, in 1745, poet James Thomson wrote the words to perhaps Britain’s best known patriotic song, Rule, Britannia!, a piece noted for being far more exciting than the actual National Anthem.

Next station: Hammersmith

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