Saturday, 5 March 2022

An Art Deco Architecture Crawl in London

By train to the capital again - architectural and railway history



I have long been interested in Art Deco and Streamline Moderne architecture and style, and when it comes to architecture, London is one of the best cities in the world for the number of surviving buildings. Art Deco style was prominent in the 1920s (that is to say it is now a century old, quite amazing), and this morphed gradually into moderne in the 1930s, so moderne suffered from being popular during the great depression when there was little money around to build things. London, and the UK in general, suffered much less in the depression than New York and the USA, and also benefitted from a great expansion of the London Underground railway which had a management that cared about image and engaged a great architect, Charles Holden, to design its stations. A good chunk of the modernist buildings in London are Underground stations, and the capital's first skyscraper (albeit a very minor one by New York standards) is the Underground headquarters at 55 Broadway, St James's Park station. I have taken many photographs of Art Deco and Moderne buildings in London and throughout England, but there were (and still are even after this trip) many left to do in London, and when I was on "grandparent duty" there last week I took the opportunity during school hours to tick off a few more, aided by a map of Art Deco London which I had received as a birthday gift.

Our trip up to London was by the well-trodden path of a train from Stamford to connect at Peterborough with the 11:29 departure for Kings Cross. The train from Peterborough to London was delayed by several minutes, and it was one of those delays that kept getting longer as a situation developed, which turned out to be deer on the line between Grantham and Peterborough! We were able to secure affordable First Class tickets but the train was quite busy and our reserved seats, although near each other were not quite together. However, there was a whole table of four seats not taken, so we sat together there instead. This happens so often that I never worry about not being able to reserve the ideal seats. We were served the usual refreshments and although it was past eleven o'clock there were still some breakfast items left: we could even have had porridge if we had wanted it, but I settled for a pain-au-chocolat with my orange juice and black coffee.

We made our way to Mayfair, by Piccadilly Line to Green Park, for lunch at an Italian-themed restaurant, Murano, which reminded us of our splendid tour of Italy last autumn when we stayed on the island of Murano at Venice. This restaurant is superb in every sense. We arrived fifteen minutes and with luggage but we were welcomed immediately and our luggage, and coats were stored for us. The staff were attentive and helpful and we were well-served with wonderful food and drinks of the highest standard. This doesn't come cheap, but in my opinion it was not overpriced. Service like that requires enough staff, and that obviously costs money. A service charge is included on the bill: they say it is optional, but with service like that I have no hesitation in paying it! This does save having to work out and give a gratuity, which has become awkward with the advent of contactless payment by smartphone, which we generally use these days. From the pre-lunch nibbles to the espresso and Limoncello this meal was perfect and set us up the five days we were due to be in London, and very little else would be needed that day.

After lunch we went to our temporary home and fetched the children from school and nursery, and I planned my Art Deco Crawl for the following day!

The next morning was wet and cold, but the forecast was for this to improve and to continue to improve for the rest of our stay, so we made a late start, after coffee once the children were delivered to their institutions. We travelled together by bus as far as Harrod's where our ways parted and I walked down Sloane Street towards the river at Chelsea, heading for Battersea Power Station. This outstanding building, now residential, was derelict last time I went to see it and I was not able to make satisfactory pictures of it, so that was where I decided to start this time, being based in west London and the weather being spectacularly good by now.

Walking towards the river along Chelsea Bridge Road there was an amazing view of the "iconic," as they say these days, four chimneys of the art deco power station right in front of me, and then I could see it more clearly as I crossed the bridge, and then finally I was able to walk up to it and take whatever photographs I wished. I hope to have them all on my Flickr collection soon. Only two of the chimneys are genuine thirties constructions, the rest of the power station being added later to match and giving the famous and pleasing appearance which was worth preserving. This was once the most powerful electricity generating station in the world (as had been Lots Road power station across the river in Chelsea in its day!).  No wonder London was called "The Smoke"!

The redevelopment of this area is not confined to the power station itself, but also the railway arches under the lines from Victoria station and much of the land around, reaching across to Nine Elms, once the Southern Railway's locomotive sheds and now the site of the New Covent Garden Market. The Underground has recently been extended to serve Nine Elms and the Battersea Power Station development and in order to reach the City and Islington for my next subjects, I caught a Northern Line train from the new Battersea Power Station station as far as Waterloo from where I took the Waterloo and City Line to Bank.

Fox Umbrellas (now a wine shop!) is not actually an art deco building but has a wonderful moderne shop front which has been preserved by the new business, and is just round the corner from Moorgate station. This was handy, because next on the list were two buildings along the Essex Road in Islington, easily reached by the Northern Line and a section of the Great Northern main line railway which had once been another part of the Northern Line Underground - there turned out to be as much railway history as architectural history in this adventure! Like the power station and the umbrella shop, neither of the other two buildings was in use for its original purpose either, these being a former snack bar and a former cinema, the latter being unexpectedly quite spectacular and definitely deco rather than moderne.



After my architectural photography, it was, quite accidentally, back to railway history! I went to Essex Road station to take a train back towards the City in order to get back in time to meet the children from school and pre-school. Essex Road station is one of those that was once part of the Northern Line City Branch but which since the seventies has been part of the inner suburban Great Northern service. Although it now has new trains the décor of the station has hardly been touched since British Rail applied the Network SouthEast branding in the eighties.

This line, when part of the Underground, suffered a terrible fatal accident at its Mooorgate terminus fifty years ago when a train failed to stop for reasons still not understood and ran into the dead end tunnel at full speed killing many people in and injuring many in the most dreadful manner, so hearing the automated announcement that we were approaching Moorgate, "our final destination," was rather chilling to those of us who remember it. "Where this service terminates," is what many trains say to us and would sound rather less final.

From Moorgate I took a Metropolitan Line to Farringdon to take a look at the many changes which have been made to the area to accommodate the yet-to-open Elizabeth Line (Crossrail) and the extended platforms to take the twelve-coach Thameslink trains. I am pleased to see that the original Metropolitan Railway buildig is still intact and in use, with a new glass-and-steel building opposite to take the bigger crowds. I strolled around Smithfield for a while, mourning the loss of a great Art Deco building, Chambers & Co, which once stood where yet another entrance to Farringdon Elizabeth Line station now stands - such a pity they could not have adapted that building rather than replace it.

Back to Farringdon I took a Thameslink train to St Pancras where I popped into Fortnum and Mason to replenish the household supply of St Pancras Blend tea on my way to get the Hammersmith & City Underground train back to our lodging and to collect the children. The end of another day.

The next day was Friday and we had booked lunch at another restaurant which had been recommended to us, as much for its architecture as its food, for Brasserie Zédel is a real part of the Art Deco Architecture Crawl! From the "Z" and "L" door handles and the carpet design to the signage and the ceiling, the interior of this bar/café/restaurant is thoroughly Art Deco and has a French theme, befitting the country of Deco's origin. I visited a couple of other deco buildings on the way there, but on eo fthem, the Dorchester Hotel, was disappointing because the excellent façade was hidden by the scaffolding needed for some building work. I shall have to return!

The dining room is downstairs at Zédel and the curved staircase has a wonderful Art Deco carpet which is best not watched as you descend, lest you miss your step as you follow the zig-zag lines! There is a basement atrium off which are the cloakroom, toilets, etc and the Bar Américain (which was closed when we were there) as well as the grand entrance to the dining room.


The food here was good. It was not all French, but one could choose French items. Service was not as good as at Murano because there were simply not enough staff: they worked hard but struggled to get to everyone in a timely manner, although they somehow managed to remain friendly and cheerful and we were happy to pay the "optional" service charge added to our bill. Advice on wine was good, and we took the advice and had just what we needed to complement our food. But there is no doubt that the décor was the main attraction, and I'd recommend anyone to come here at least once! Just off Piccadilly Circus, in Sherwood Street. They do a cabaret here, too, but we had no free evenings to try that!

And so to the wonderful subterranean circular Underground station at Piccadilly Circus, and back to our duties for the evening. We had the children all day on Saturday, of course, and then on Sunday their parents returned and we caught our train home after we'd had Sunday lunch together at the Brook Green Hotel. 

The journey back was interesting: annoying in one sense but actually rather better than expected in another! On the Friday I received a message from LNER to say that my train back was not running as planned and that my reservation was cancelled. Among the options I could book another seat on a different train that evening, which at first sight was a bit of a problem, because we needed to connect with the last train home from Peterborough. As it happened, we could travel earlier because our son and his wife were expected to arrive back in good time (and they did, hence lunch together). I thought that would mean a great long wait in the cold and dark at Peterborough for the last train home, but when I booked it the arrival time was actually a bit later than the original train, even though it was scheduled to depart earlier, so our wait would be shorter than planned. It turned out that the main line was closed somewhere between Stevenage and Alexandra Palace and our train was diverted via the loop through Hertford and took half an hour longer than usual, hence the need to leave earlier to catch our connection. We had longer on board to enjoy the First Class hospitality, too, and the train was a good old Inter City 225, increasingly rare now.


3 comments:

  1. Thoroughly enjoyed this piece - could really appreciate the architecture (and the railway links too).

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    1. You may like to see my video on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/p/CausVXEPdPd/

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    2. You're right. It's awesome - the fresco, the posters, the metalwork on the staircase - and that carpet.

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