Saturday 1 April 2023

An Art Deco Tour of London

A Short Tour of Some of London's Amazing 20th Century Buildings 

One of my sons gave me a day out in London as a birthday gift this year (as he did last year). My birthday in n January but not a lot is happening then, so we actually had our day out in March ... He kindly treated me to a tour of two major art deco buildings with lunch in another one between them. And this is the story.

The weather on the day the outing was really good for March, warmer than it had been but with the possibility of some showers. I wore a jacket rather than a jumper for the first time in ages and while I needed ny Berghaus wind- and water-proof jacket over it first thing I had a bag with me so that I could take it off when the temperature rose - and put it back on if the rain materialised.

I left home on a train just before 9 o'clock and after the change of train at Peterborough topped up my breakfast with a bowl of porridge from the First Class "Deli" menu on offer.The train was on time into London Kings Cross and my first task was to go to my son's house and drop off there the Easter gifts that I was taking for his household, as it was now getting close to Easter and we would not have a better chance to take them. 

Then the two of us set off on the Central Line to Covent Garden for the first visit of the outing. This was the magnificent Freemasons' Hall: in spite of the organisation's reputation for secrecy, public tours of the building are available and this was where my tour of art deco buildings began. I had seen the building before, from the outside only, but had not done much photography there, so here was my opportunity to catch up on that: I only had my iPhone rather than my Olympus DSLR camera, but the resolution of my iPhone is better than my Olympus!

As well as seeing the art deco interior close up, we also learned a lot about the history of Freemasonry and its ethos as a charity and mutual help society. I found this very interesting as I have had a number of friends who are members

Interior and exterior of Freemasons' Hall

The exterior was used briefly as James Bond's HQ in one of the films

From Covent Garden we walked to the Adelphi building on the riverside, one of the outstanding group of three contrasting art deco buildings on The Embankment adjacent to Charing Cross station. (Our walk took us through some streets I had visited with the group of women when we went to "Six" at a theatre in Strand.) I have photographed the exterior of the Adelphi building before, but now I was to see just a tiny part of the inside, for we were having lunch at Smith & Wollensky, an American steakhouse, which is in one corner of the Adelphi building. I cannot guarantee that it serves London's best steaks as it advertising boasts, but it was very good indeed - always a good sign when the knife at your place-setting is by default a steak knife - and my son had arranged for a special follow-up to desert to celebrate my birthday, which was rather touching. The usual Malbec accompanied the steak and we each had a small glass of beer beforehand so as not to get through the wine before the steak even arrived!

From there we crossed the river by Hungerford Bridge and then followed the south bank westwards with the chimneys of Battersea Power station, icon of art deco London, beckoning in the distance. This was to be the final and most amazing venue of our short tour. 

It was unfortunate that the rain started while we were on this section of the tour, but we had the appropriate protection and carried on walking, showers going and going, and all was well. I had visited the Battersea Power station site a little while ago, but it was before the power station itself had been completed. Since then it has become quite a tourist attraction as well as being a decent, upmarket shopping centre with bars and restaurants. London never seems to have too much of this sort of thing. 

There was lot to enjoy about the building itself for fans of art deco style: it is quite amazing how much decoration was put into this building which would only be seen by the power station workers, and bearing in mind that this was a coal-fired power station, this is something of a surprise. I do not expect it will not have been especially clean in its working life, when it was the most powerful generating station in Europe!

It was also interesting for me as a graduate in Town Planning to see how the building had been repurposed for its present rôle and how the designers had used its history.

The highlight of the visit to Battersea was a ride in Lift 109, a glass lift inside one of the chimneys which gives fantastic views over London (and beyond if the air is clear enough) from the top in complete safety and comfort. The ticket to Lift 109 includes a small display on the history of the power station with some interesting photographs and then while awaiting the ascent a light show in the lift lobby which was really quite good but did not, for me, add much to the experience. I think its purpose is stop the queue feeling like a queue, there always being some entertainment along the way!

Soon, though, we were aboard the lift and out through the top of the chimney to look down at so many places we have been before, not least the street in Pimlico where my host for the day had lived when he first came to London as a new graduate. The damp weather did restrict visibility to a certain extent, but it was good enough to see most of London, and especially the West End and the river.

After Lift 109 I was treated to a cocktail at Control Room B, a bar with a distinct power station theme and with a lot of ancient electrical equipment on display, and with electric-themed cocktails (of course). 

Soon it would be time to wish each other farewell and to go our separate ways, but first we enjoyed a farewell half-pint together across the river in Chelsea. We walked together over Battersea Bridge to The Fox and Hounds, and afterwards I made my way to Sloane Square Underground station and changed trains at Victoria for Kings Cross. 

By now it was the peak time for homeward travel after the working day and there was not only a queue to board trains at Victoria Underground station, there was even a queue to access the platform. People were incredibly patient in waiting their turn and I was very impressed - but the system rather relies on patience: any pushing and shoving would be extremely dangerous, risking people at the front being pushed onto the track. There was no problem on the Underground, all was running smoothly with a train every minute when I was there; it was simply that there were so very many passengers. I don't know what happened to "no-one's travelling any more since the pandemic." They were certainly travelling from Victoria, or through it like me, that afternoon!

I waited in the First Class Lounge at Kings Cross for my train home and needed only very light refreshments on the way back, and no further alcohol. At Peterborough I had a short wait for the connection to Stamford and was met by my wife with the car to take me home though the rain ... which had stopped by the time I get there! It was nice to see her, though, even so.

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