London Coffeehouse Tour

Unreal City Audio’s Coffeehouse Tour covers two of the Londonphile’s favourite things: London and coffee. Historian and tour leader Dr Matthew Green conducts these tours around the old City, explaining how a gritty and bitter Turkish drink transformed the capital. Ably assisted by a small troupe of actors and musicians, he brings the City’s old coffeehouses to life – no mean feat considering that they no longer exist.

Appropriately enough the tour commences outside St Michael’s Cornhill – in 1652 Greek entrepreneur and coffee-lover Pasqua Rosee started the city’s first coffee stall here in the churchyard. People queued up all the way down St Michael’s Alley to get their caffeine fix from dishes of coffee sold from a wooden shack, while the church pews sat empty. Over 600 dishes a day were sold.

The old and the new.

One of the most fascinating – and fundamental – aspects of the original London coffeehouses was that they were not a solitary experience, as is so often the case today. Instead, they were an opportunity for people (read: men) to talk to strangers, strike deals, and generally impart news, information and mis-information. The early coffeehouses were so strong a feature of London life that they survived not only the Great Fire (which destroyed all 82 coffeehouses in the City) but the wrath of King Charles II, who attempted  – and failed – to shut them down with a 1675 proclamation.

The tour takes you to the sites of some of the earliest coffeehouses – most of which came to be associated with a particular business, such as insurance, auctioneering and stockbroking and were essentially to become the birthplaces of these industries. So as Matthew points out, it’s no coincidence that this same area has since housed Lloyd’s of London, The Royal Exchange and the London Stock Exchange. Along the way you also get to explore some of the City’s quaint, hidden back streets and churchyards. And as for whether or not you will need your coffee fix before the tour: you may still want to partake beforehand as although you will get opportunities to taste it, the old style coffee is quite different and won’t be to everyone’s liking – even though it’s served in a diluted form!

Check Unreal City Audio’s website for future dates – and be warned that they often sell out quickly. There is an email list you can join for advance notice of tours. They will also be running a Chocolate and Coffeehouse Tour on Saturday 7th April for Easter.


Sydenham Hill Wood and Folly

‘A folly might be defined as a useless building erected for ornament on a gentleman’s estate’ – Barbara Jones.

‘The mark of a true folly is that it was erected to satisfy and give pleasure to the builder, and greatly to surprise the stranger’ – Sir Hugh Casson.

While there is much debate about how exactly to define a folly, there’s little doubt that many visitors must be fooled by this folly in Sydenham Hill Wood. These ‘ruins’ actually only date back to the Victorian era, and were built as an impressive garden feature in the grounds of a large house once on the site – Fairwood, which was built around 1864. Its owner, Alderman David Henry Stone (later a Lord Mayor of London), contracted the firm of James Pulham & Son (inventor of the artificial Pulhamite rock) to construct these sham ruins. Ruins had been a popular type of folly since the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when wealthy landowners inspired by their Grand Tours of Europe wanted to re-create some of the classical sights in their own gardens.

The folly and rockery

The Sydenham folly depicts a ruined church or monastery – apparently remains of stained glass were still present in the windows back in the 1950s and early 1960s. It’s thought that the arch would once have been complete – although it’s hard to be precise when you’re talking about ruins, and fake ones at that! There are also the remains of a rockery leading down to what was once an ornamental stream. Previously a group of six or seven large houses, including Fairwood, had been built on this 9-hectare site, but these were demolished by the end of the 1970s and the area returned to a woodland state (with a few Victorian era plants thrown in for good measure). It has been managed by the London Wildlife Trust since 1982.

Although it was the folly that drew me to Sydenham Hill Wood, this little slice of woodland also has several other points of interest. As difficult as it is to believe given its rather pristine current state, a railway line once ran right through this area – and not just any line, but the Crystal Palace line transporting people from Nunhead to the Crystal Palace. Camille Pissarro painted the view from the Cox’s Walk Footbridge in the wood in 1871 (see picture below left), which looks remarkably different today (below right). You can also see the 1865 tunnel mouth that the railway once passed through – now home to a colony of bats. Much like the story in Vauxhall, this is an open space that has reverted to type, in this case with the wood and its inhabitants reclaiming the space.

Sydenham Hill Wood is located in SE26 – there are entry points on Crescent Wood Road and Sydenham Hill. Forest Hill and Sydenham Overground are the closest stations, while the buses that will get you here are the 363 and 356. It even has its own Twitter account: @SydenhamWoodLWT

London Wildlife Trust Sydenham Hill Wood page

If you’d like to see more photos of the folly you can visit the Londonphile’s Flickr set.

Phoenix Cinema Tour

Fancy a peek behind the scenes at one of Britain’s oldest cinemas? Well you’re in luck as the lovely Phoenix Cinema in East Finchley runs regular (and free!) tours of its fascinating High Road premises. The Phoenix was purpose-built as a cinema back in 1910 and is well worth a look – as well as visiting its deluxe deco auditorium these tours also give you access to areas visitors would never normally see and teach you much about its history and heritage.

It’s interesting to learn that the East Finchley Picturedrome, as it was then known, was originally more or less back-to-front compared to its current layout. The rake of the cinema followed the slope of the hill down towards the High Road, with the screen at the front of the building. Patrons would enter via doors on either side of the screen – and as people used to come and go during screenings back then this made for many interruptions. Originally the cinema was topped with exotic Moorish-style onion dome towers – a huge revamp in 1938 rung in many changes, not least of which was the sleek modernist frontage we still see today. It was at this point that the screen was moved to the back of the cinema and landfill used to create a rake that now went in the opposite direction, though the 1910 barrel vaulted ceiling was retained.

These renovations also saw the addition of the beautiful gold and bronze art deco plasterwork panels in the main auditorium. Designed by Mollo and Egan – who worked on similar decorations in a number of cinemas of the era, many now sadly demolished – the panels represent various aspects of art and industry. The rich golds, bronzes and reds of the auditorium create what is surely one of London’s most beautiful cinemas, and one which has been featured in a number of films itself (such as The End of the Affair and Interview with a Vampire).

The tour spends some time in the auditorium (before the screenings start for the day), pops past a boiler room behind the screen (where you will see a hand-drawn decoration from the earliest days of the cinema) before finishing in the projection room, one of the tour’s highlights. Not only will you get to see the projectionist’s view of the auditorium, but a projectionist is on hand to point out the many old features of the room, as well as explaining how films are screened today. While most cinemas are now exclusively digital, at the Phoenix the old 35mm projector still sits side by side with the digital one. Other nice touches include the vintage ‘no smoking’ signs which were mandatory back in the days of highly flammable nitrate film stock (and when people still contemplated smoking in the workplace).

The tours run for approximately 45 minutes on Sunday mornings, generally once a month – the next dates are 22 April, 13 May and 10 June, usually starting at 10.30am, 11.15am, 12 noon and 12.45pm. They are free but must be booked in advance – contact the box office on 020 8444 6789 or email

Museum of Childhood

Mosaics created by female students from a South Kensington mosaics class.

If you’re interested in architecture then the months of March and April 2012 are a great time to visit the V&A Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green, as it is holding architectural tours and a small exhibition to celebrate its 140th birthday. I visited this week and was particularly interested to learn more about the museum’s fascinating history and its many links to the Crystal Palace.

The main building at the Museum of Childhood actually started its life as a temporary home for the treasures that were being kept after the 1851 Great Exhibition, held in the Crystal Palace at Hyde Park. Its construction was modelled on that of the Crystal Palace and it is one of the oldest surviving examples of a pre-fabricated iron-frame building. It turned out that the structure was leaky, fluctuated highly in temperature and the roof had almost rusted away by the time it was dismantled – in other words, not the ideal museum storage facility! It was also not popular with locals, whose nicknames for it included the Iron Museum and the Brompton Boilers.

Modern mosaics on the Museum's new facade (2005-2006), in front of the original structure.

When the South Kensington Museum (now the V&A) was complete and the structure no longer required it was offered to any borough in London that would care to use it as a museum. Bethnal Green was the only area to put up its hand, so it was dismantled and transported eight miles to the east by horse and cart in the late 1860s. At this point an architect – James William Wild – was finally called in (the original structure was designed by engineers) to design the new red-brick exterior that was built around the iron structure. Wild had visions of a great learning hub in the east and designed a much larger complex including a school room and library, but like many architectural dreams it was never fully realised. You can see a drawing of how it would have appeared – complete with neo-classical columns – in the current exhibition.

Aware of the area’s working class population, the Bethnal Green Museum initially opened free of charge on three days a week from 10am to 10pm to allow working people the chance to visit. The original collection opened in 1872 and focused on food, animal products and French art from the 1700s, while the museum later hosted a number of important national collections  – such as the National Portrait, Pitt Rivers and Wallace collections – while they sought permanent sites. The museum’s focus on children began to build slowly from the 1920s, and it officially became the Museum of Childhood in 1974 under the V&A directorship of Sir Roy Strong. Don’t miss its lovely collection of dolls houses on the top floor – I’m also a big fan of the Chinese rock gardens and model theatres on display.

'The Eagle Slayer', John Bell

Although a fair amount of the museum’s history is covered in the foyer exhibition, if you can make it to an architectural tour on a Thursday afternoon you will learn even more. For example, the fleur-de-lis iron railings around the museum also came from the Crystal Palace, while The Eagle Slayer statue by John Bell now found in the cafe area was originally exhibited at the Great Exhibition. A fountain from the 1862 International Exhibition also used to be housed in the front courtyard. This was removed in the 1930s as it was breaking down due to the pollution in the area – it was stored off-site for safe keeping and promptly ‘mislaid’. So if you stumble across a large majolica fountain in your travels you know where to return it to…

Architectural tours run on Thursdays in March and April from 3.30-4pm – no need to book, just turn up at the information desk.
The 140th Anniversary display will be on show until the 8th of July.

Fencing from the Crystal Palace

Clissold House

As I approached Clissold House around a bend in the river I was met with the delightful vista above. But no, Clissold House is not located in a peaceful little village in the English countryside but in Hackney (Stoke Newington, to be precise), and I think you will agree it makes for a rather pretty – if somewhat unexpected – picture. Clissold House, which dates from 1793 (architect unknown) and is located in Clissold Park, has recently undergone a £4.46 million restoration courtesy of Lottery funds, so the Londonphile popped by for a little look-see and a tour of the property.

Eastern side - the front.

The original owner of Clissold House, Jonathan Hoare, chose the site for its proximity to the New River, an artificial river opened in 1613 to bring fresh water to the capital. This once flowed past the house and continued as far as Clerkenwell, and has now been restored and extended to resemble its original appearance. Another spot of artifice is found in the construction of the grassy knoll that the house appears to sit on; this was built up on the western side of the house on top of a series of vaults, which are still used for storage today. This created an architectural oddity, with the house having two storeys on the western side and three on the east. Also a matter of much confusion is the question of which side is actually the front of the house. While important guests were received on the carriageway at the western side, the more restrained eastern side – which looked across to the village and the church (St Mary’s Old Church, not the larger church in the top picture) – was actually the front of the house.

The story of how Clissold House – originally named Paradise House – came into its new name is another intriguing part of the house’s history. William Crawshay, who bought the property in 1811, forbade his daughter Eliza to marry her beloved curate from across the lawn at St Mary’s. So they simply sat and waited, watching each other from across the way, until William died and Eliza inherited the house and married her man: Reverend Augustus Clissold. As they had no children and their family were not interested in the property after their deaths, it was bought first by the Ecclesiastical Commissioners and later – following a vigorous public campaign to turn it into a public park – by the Metropolitan Board of Works, who opened Clissold Park in 1889.

Reverend Clissold's view from St Mary's to the eastern side of the house.

As the original plans for the house have yet to be discovered, the recent restoration took place along best-guess lines with regards to layout. The lovely old oak floorboards have been retained, while the highlight is definitely the spiral staircase, which reaches up towards a glass dome. And take a moment to visit the poignant memorial drinking fountain on the northern side of the house – still in use today, and complete with trough for animals at the base – that a Crawshay family member erected in memory of her three young sisters who had died in infancy almost sixty years previously.

Free 30-minute tours of the house were arranged to mark the re-opening, and although they were originally only intended to run for couple of months have proved so popular that they will continue for the time being. As much of the house is now used as a cafe and a community space you can have a mooch around much of it by yourself, though a tour will get you into a few extra rooms and is also worth it for the fascinating story of the house (although there are some information panels in the western cafe if you’d rather do it yourself). I’m told the people at Clissold House still hope to find out more about the property and its history, so if any historians out there stumble across anything do let them know!

Email to book tours; these are generally held on Tuesday and Saturday afternoons.

Tower Bridge Engineering Tour

Control cabin

Control cabin

I announced at the start of the year that the Londonphile would be one of the lucky participants on a Tower Bridge behind-the-scenes Engineering Tour. Well just last Sunday was my day to enter the belly of the beast that is London’s prettiest bridge and, as promised, here are some pictures from the big day. Although the tour started and finished like a standard Tower Bridge visit (up on the walkways and down in the engine rooms), we had our own guide and gained access into off-limits areas, where a Senior Technical Officer was subjected to much grilling about the bridge’s mechanics.

It turns out that Tower Bridge is also a fine spot for a bit of photography, especially if your tastes run to taking pictures of industrial/Victorian settings. I took plenty of pictures on the day, but will focus on ones from the restricted areas in this post. If you’d like to see the whole set you can find them on the Londonphile’s Flickr stream at:

The old steam hydraulic machinery

The old hydraulic machinery - powered by steam.


The image at the very top of this post was taken in the first of the off-limits areas we visited: the south east Control Cabin (no longer in use), where the levers for lifting the bridge were once activated. These days it’s all done at the touch of a button. Next stop was the machinery rooms, where the old steam hydraulic machinery (pictured above) sits literally side by side with the modern oil and electric hydraulic machinery now used to lift the bridge. A frighteningly high staircase then took us past one of the accumulators (pictured right), where the steam used to lift the bascules would collect until it was required for use.

Next was the highlight of the tour: we visited one of the huge bascule chambers underneath the river bed – where the counterweights that balance the bridge swing down when the bascules are opened. We first viewed it from above through a doorway from the machinery room, before descending into the chamber itself. It is truly massive in size  – so large it’s hard to capture it in the one photograph. It’s also a little awe inspiring – truly an amazing feat of Victorian engineering – though not surprisingly also a little cold and damp.

Bascule chamber - viewed from above.

In the year Tower Bridge first opened – 1894 – there were 6,160 bridge lifts. Traffic on the Thames has reduced dramatically since then, and although the promotional material still states that there are around 900 lifts a year, the Senior Technical Officer advised us that more recently that figure is closer to 700. All bridge lifts require 24 hours written notice, and the timetable of when lifts will occur can be found on the Tower Bridge website. The bridge has had a fresh paint job to pretty itself up for this year’s Diamond Jubilee. One Tower Bridge fact which you may not be aware of is that its metalwork was originally painted in a chocolate brown colour – and was re-painted red, white and blue to mark the Silver Jubilee back in 1977. You can see examples of the original brown colour – as used on internal metalwork – in the first two photos in the Flickr set.

Competition for tickets for the Engineering Tours was fierce – as predicted – and they are now sold out. You can put your name down on a waiting list for any future tours by contacting 020 7407 9191. Alternatively, you can always view the walkways and engine rooms by attending the Tower Bridge Exhibition, which is open daily.

Tower Bridge website

The Londonphile’s Tower Bridge Flickr set

In the machinery room.

In the machinery room.

The Barbican Estate

A tower looms above Frobisher Crescent

A tower looms above Frobisher Crescent

If you like your architecture to come with a strong dose of brutalism and lashings of retro styling, then you’ll love the Barbican. The Londonphile is a big fan but I am aware that many are not – the design of both the residences and the Arts Centre that makes up the Barbican Estate has divided Londoners for decades now. Love it or loathe it, the design is a momentous one, and while its groundbreaking use of concrete and brutalist aesthetics makes it a landmark complex, what I find most fascinating are the clever historical and architectural references scattered across the site.

St Giles', London Wall remains, high and low-rise residences and pilotis.

St Giles', London Wall remains, high and low-rise residences and pilotis.

The Barbican Estate was designed to re-populate the City of London, which had a tiny live-in population of just over 5,000 people following World War Two. The area had been so badly damaged during the Blitz that it was little more than a bombed-out wasteland. St Giles’ Church, which can be found in the middle of the complex, was more or less a shell and had to be significantly re-built. So what was once a very old area of London became a very modern one, although this modernity sits side by side with structures like St Giles’ and fragments of the old London Wall.

Contrary to popular belief, the Barbican was not built as social housing – although its architects Chamberlin, Powell and Bon also designed the nearby Golden Lane Estate. Now of course its residences are highly sought after – particularly those in the three triangular-shaped towers, which were the tallest residential towers in Europe when built. A series of highwalks connect the area to its surrounds while simultaneously demarcating it as a rare pedestrian oasis in the city – there are no roads within the Barbican. The name Barbican derives from the Latin word ‘barbecana’ meaning a bastion or fortified outpost and refers to the ancient barbecana once situated in this area. The architects have included a number of references to castles, including a crenellated wall, arrow slits and a small staircase tower that resembles a gatehouse along the western side of the complex.

Chamberlin, Powell and Bon also sought to emulate and give a modern twist to West End Squares and European formal gardens – there are eight acres of gardens and lakes across the site, but as many of the larger ones are for residents only they are often overlooked. Frobisher Crescent, meanwhile, is reminiscent of a spa town crescent. A semi-circular motif is repeated across the Estate, and even used in the Arts Centre’s branding, possibly referencing the semi-circular remains of the London Wall near St Giles’. The mediterranean use of barrel vaults (also semi-circular), as seen in Greek island church roofs, was another reference point. The biggest influence – as acknowledged by Powell – on the Barbican’s architects was Le Corbusier. The use of pilotis – the large circular columns holding up the apartments above the lakes being the most notable example of this – is textbook Corbusier. The rounded balconies used on the towers and elsewhere strongly recall the curved lines of his Notre Dame du Haut.

Rounded balconies and barrel vaulted roofs.

Rounded balconies and barrel vaulted roofs.

And if you’ve always wondered why the Arts Centre is mainly located underground, this is because it was a late inclusion in the design and it was hoped this lower postion would prevent noise spilling over into the already completed residential areas. Another concession to the residents was the creation of the conservatory to hide the Barbican Theatre’s very tall fly towers (where stage sets and the like are stored directly above the stage). The section of the tube that runs underneath the lake is the only part of the underground to be supported on rubber bearings – also aimed at noise reduction.

Although planning for the Barbican began in the 1950s, the residences weren’t completed until the early 1970s and the Arts Centre only opened in 1982 (it is celebrating its 30th this year) – giving us some idea of the massive scale of the project. Chamberlin died in 1978 before the Barbican was completed. If you’d like to learn more about the Barbican’s history and architecture I highly recommend taking one of the Arts Centre’s 90-minute Architecture Tours, or the Hidden Barbican Tours, 75-minute behind-the-scenes tours which will take you to backstage areas and up the fly tower. Tours cost £8/6; check the website for details as times vary across the year.