Category Archives: Shoreditch

Give my regards to Broad Street

As regular readers will know, I’m fascinated by abandoned railway stations. Almost as fascinating, though, are the dilapidated ones, the ones that haven’t changed since some time in the early 1980s, shabby, echoey and grubby. Trains are few and far between, as are passengers. I don’t know why I love them so much, maybe it’s because such places feel undisturbed, like I have some sort of privileged access to them. Or maybe it’s just because I’m unbelievably strange and perverted.

For these reasons and more, I wish I’d had the opportunity to visit the terminus at Broad Street. Poor, poor Broad Street. If the London termini were people, Broad Street would be a pitiful drunk sitting in a bar telling everyone how he “used to be somebody.”

It started out so well. Broad Street was originally built by the cumbersomely-named East & West India Docks & Birmingham Junction Railway. The aim of this company was, as its name suggests, basically to make its fortune transporting goods from the Docklands to the London & Birmingham Railway. In this, it succeeded admirably. An early amendment was to change its name to the snappier “North London Railway.”

Commuter traffic was initially a secondary consideration for the NLR – they ran passenger trains fo’ sho’, but this was more of a “we might as well” measure than anything else.  To the surprise of the company directors, though, it turned out that their passenger trains into Fenchurch Street (run by arrangement with the London and Blackwall Railway, who owned that terminus) were very popular indeed. This despite the fact that the NLR took a ridiculously circuitous route around London before reaching Fenchurch Street, no less than 44 miles.

It was therefore decided that the NLR could afford to take a gamble on getting more direct access to the City. Particularly since the London and North Western Railway (of which the aforementioned London & Birmingham Railway was now part) offered to stump up much of the cost in exchange for use of such an extension.  The LNWR also supplied a designer, their own engineer, William Baker. The site of the new terminus was to be at the end of a branch from Kingsland, on the junction of Liverpool Street and Broad Street.

Construction was not without its difficulties. Building through crowded East London necessitated the demolition of many crowded streets – the NLR undertook to provide a cheap workers’ train from Dalston, but those forced out decided they’d rather walk and just moved to the neighbouring streets, making them yet more crowded. Excavation revealed some sort of medieval mass grave whose origins were not known – one theory had it that, as one of Bedlam’s several incarnations was nearby, this had been where its dead were buried.

Nevertheless, in 1865 the station opened. Alan A. Jackson describes the architectural style as “really rather horrid,” which I think is perhaps going a bit too far. The Illustrated London News was more charitable, describing the style as “mixed Italian.” Perhaps it is a bit over-elaborate for the size of the terminus. Oddly, we don’t know who the architect was – presumably William Baker had assistance, but from whom is unrecorded.

One ingenious feature to make the most of the very expensive land was to build the goods depot requested by the LNWR under the station, with wagons lowered by a hydraulic lift. As a result, whatever architectural merits the station may have lacked, it was undeniably an efficient use of space, taking up a mere 2½ acres in total.

The NLR nicknamed the station its “happy afterthought,” for it was immediately popular with commuters and rapidly became the third-busiest terminus in London. At the beginning of the 20th century, more than one train a minute left the station, serving such varied destinations as Richmond, Chalk Farm, Bow, Watford, Kingston, High Barnet, Kew, Potters Bar, Mansion House, Kensington Olympia and even Birmingham.

Unfortunately, this prosperity was not to last. As it turned out, the success of Broad Street was largely based on the fact that it had a monopoly on fast commuter trains. As the Tube, tram and bus networks expanded, so people turned to those instead. The NLR desperately advertised their service as “the open-air route,” but no one fell for it.

In 1911, when passenger numbers reached their lowest since the station’s opening, the LNWR decided that electrification was in order – as has been mentioned before, this was seen as terribly clean and modern. This did seem to slow the decline considerably, but services never entirely recovered.

During the Second World War, many of the East London stations were severely damaged by enemy action, and it was decided after the end of the conflict that it wasn’t worth fixing them up again. The service to Poplar (which was rather unPoplar with passengers) was cut altogether. Broad Street itself had been hit, and again, it was not considered worth repairing.

The main station building was abandoned altogether in the 1950s and replaced by a couple of smaller buildings on the concourse. Traffic at this stage was so poor that only two staff were needed for the entire terminus.

In 1963 British Railways declared their intention to close the place altogether, but were thwarted by local opinion. Instead, BR carried out what is known in railway circles as “closure by stealth,” i.e. not officially closing the station but instead making the station so useless as to render it undesirable to keep open. To this end, services were diverted or cut altogether and maintenance was cut to the bare minimum. Part of the overall roof was removed in 1967 which, as you can see above left, gave the station a half-complete look. By the 1980s, only one platform was needed to accommodate the pathetically small number of passengers. Demolition of the rest began in 1985 and final closure came in 1986.

Although the North London Railway mostly survives as part of the Overground and Docklands Light Railways, nothing remains of old Broad Street. The Broadgate Estate was built on top of it, so it couldn’t be reopened even if anyone wanted to (and they don’t).

And it showed such promise.


Filed under 19th century, 20th Century, Buildings and architecture, East End and Docklands, Geography, History, London, London's Termini, Politics, Shoreditch, The City, Transport

Good Friday? I’ll say!

Happy Easter, chums. I hope the weekend finds you well. I am fine. At the time of writing, it’s Good Friday and I’ve just come back from a rather unexpectedly pleasant day out which was, I feel, in the true spirit of psychogeography.

I mean, it was a lovely sunny day outside, and as it was a four-day weekend, I was feeling rather chipper. I wasn’t at all sure what I wanted to do, so I thought I’d explore the canals around Limehouse a bit more. Alas, when I got to Bank, I discovered that the Docklands Light Railway wasn’t running. Yes, I know, I know, could have seen that when I started the journey, but that’s not how I roll.

So, vaguely at a loss, I decided to just go for a wander. I broke the surface (not literally) and wandered vaguely North-East through Leadenhall Market. This place, pictured right, is an absolutely gorgeous Victorian shopping arcade. During the week it houses a food market, but at weekends is rather peaceful – I have yet to sample the weekday wares, alas. You may know it from the film of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, in which it appeared as the area around Diagon Alley. I got the impression Chris Columbus was going for the Bridget Jones’ Diary school of London film making, in which London is a magical place that hasn’t quite moved out of the Victorian era.

Heading out beyond Liverpool Street, I came upon Petticoat Lane market. I’ve never been here before, and I must admit that I’d never really thought about going there before. I’d heard of it, but had no especial desire to visit. It’s not one of the top tourist destinations, and as such doesn’t cater to tourists. It’s primarily a clothing market, which is great if you are me. However, I do have to say that there’s a lot of duplication between stalls – if you’ve seen one selection of shirts, you’ve seen them all. The market has historically been a place of dubious legality, only becoming official in 1936, but despite this and the lack of tourism, it remains a firm local institution. While I wouldn’t go out of my way for it personally, it’s worth a look if, like me, you get stupidly excited about clothes.

Speaking of places where one can get stupidly excited about clothes, Brick Lane is very nearby, and so I made a beeline that way. With it being a bank holiday and thus less crowded than usual, and with the sun out, it was an utterly delightful experience. Sadly, at present, I find myself having to hold the purse strings – I’m moving house shortly, you see. And so it makes perfect sense that the universe should choose this point to taunt me with an incredible stripy blazer in black, red and grey (which I could totally pull off, I’m telling you) and a pair of Chelsea boots in exactly the style I’ve been looking for. Sadly, I could afford neither of these. Not even in the “can but shouldn’t” way. Instead, I consoled myself with a bagel, and now my fingers smell indelibly of chopped herring.

It was at this point that a teenager told me to get a haircut. I have thus out-fabuloused both the teens and the Shoreditch kids, which I believe is what is termed “bi-winning.”

This being done, I decided to finish my journey by walking up City Road to Islington. Wandering around Camden Passage, I came across one of the most amazing canes I have ever seen. It had a silver skull-shaped handle with a jawbone that doubled as a cigar cutter. But sadly it was £150, which I really, really, really cannot afford. Finally, I know the pain of unrequited love.


Filed under Current events, East End and Docklands, Fashion and trends, Geography, Islington, London, Markets, Photos, Psychogeography, Shopping, Shoreditch, The City, tourism, Weird shops

What’s wrong with hipsters?

You see a lot of them in London. Shoreditch and Hoxton are where they’re most prevalent, but Hackney, Soho, Camden, Islington and Fitzrovia can all boast plenty. Even dear old Wandsworth has been invaded. Find anywhere with an art school and you’ll find a few of them hanging around. If you haven’t guessed, I’m talking about hipsters.

Now, hipsters get a lot of stick these days. As subcultures go, they’re more reviled than goths, geeks and hippies combined. But what exactly is a hipster? This is where people seem to run into trouble.

A hipster, it seems, is someone who takes pride in being different from the crowd. Nothing wrong with that, surely? I mean, who wouldn’t want to be seen as an individual? Ah, hold on, looks like I missed the point. The point is that the hipster is someone who takes pride in the difference itself – difference is what they cultivate. The problem arises from the fact that the difference manifests itself in the same clothing , hair and affectations as every other hipster, resulting in a kind of uniform. And the pride manifests itself in smugness.

The ire towards hipsters is not derived from the fact that they are eclectic and different, so much as that they think they are eclectic and different. Ironically, if someone genuinely was eclectic and different, they probably wouldn’t be classed as a hipster.

The look is fairly easy to identify – NHS glasses, lumberjack shirt, skinny jeans, keffiyeh, maybe some sort of woolly hat. And stupid hair. Basically, if you see a haircut and think, “That looks stupid,” you’ve probably found yourself a hipster. There may be a scraggly beard attached, if scraggly is even a word (I don’t think it is). If you trawl Topman, you can probably catch several.

Interestingly, the reputation of the hipster as less “trend setter/social rebel” and more “rich, middle-class, self-important, unoriginal snob in uniform” means that now, about the most insulting thing you can say to a hipster is that they are, in fact, a hipster. By labelling them a hipster, you effectively call them exactly the opposite of what a hipster desires to be. Some commentators have even gone so far as to suggest that by their very existence, hipsters have destroyed the meaning of cool.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that, but I do think the hipsters may be an interesting (although it goes against the hipster way to admit to being interested in anything) by-product of globalisation. With minor variations, hipsters may be found all over the world (as the Independent article above notes). As so many of the major clothing stores are multinational if not worldwide, there’s no need to hipsters to mix and match to achieve a look – they can buy the whole thing down their local high street. Head into Top Shop or Uni Qlo or – if you’re poor – Primark or H&M.

Primark. I think my image researcher may have made a mistake.

Basically, Westfield should see you alright. Interesting fact: Uni Qlo is a Japanese term derived from the English “eunuch clothes.” [NOTE FROM LAWYERS: No it is not]

So what’s the solution? Well, if you want to be unique and different, try actually being unique and different. Try enjoying what you like, rather than what the Internet and adverts tell you you should like. Wear clothes that suit you that you picked out yourself – instead of going for a charity shop look, try going to an actual charity shop. Listen to music you’ve found that you like, and if it goes mainstream, well, that’s just a sign of your good taste.
Also, stop wearing those plastic glasses, you look ridiculous.

Further Viewing
Being a dickhead’s cool, apparently. Thanks to Sazzi for alerting me to this.


Filed under Arts, Camden, Fashion and trends, Hackney, Islington, London, Music, Only loosely about London, Shopping, Shoreditch, West End

Up and down the City Road

This entry may be a little brief, for which I apologise. I found myself on an unexpected evening out with Teachmaster D, the Catlady, Mistress Bitch and Mistress Bitch’s boyfriend, among others. It was a surprisingly eventful evening in which the Archies somehow became associated with Holocaust denial.

The Archies

You bastards.

That being said, here is the entry for today, such as it is.

I’ve always been a bit sceptical about those people who claim there’s something mystical about wandering about the city. Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice and all, but let’s not pretend it’s anything other than a pleasant way to fill a boring afternoon. Still, yesterday I had a trip out that did rather make me wonder.

You see, I set out with no particular goal in mind. It’s quite often how I roll on a boring weekend – jump on a train and see where I end up. As the train rolled into London Bridge, it occurred to me that it might be quite pleasant to head over to Islington and have a look down Camden Passage. Cass Art have a very large shop there, and I felt I could justify a visit.

While there, I remembered a thing I’d seen a couple of weeks ago on the walk described in the entry I tastefully titled ‘Canal Penetration.’ Opposite the towpath, I’d seen an old factory converted into offices, complete with what looked like an elderly crane. I have a strange fascination with old machinery, so I thought I’d see if I could get any closer, as I was in the area and all. I’d been meaning to.

I was therefore surprised to see that, as part of the Open House weekend, about which I’d entirely forgotten, the normally-closed-off wharf was open. It’s just weird to me that the one day I decide, randomly, to check this out on the offchance is the one day that I actually can check it out. No doubt the statisticians will tell me that actually there’s nothing weird about that, but boo.

I managed to get plenty of photos of the factory and the crane. The crane appears to have had its cabin replaced, judging by the neatness of the wood.

I was also quite interested to note that there is what looks like an abandoned railway on the wharfside. It’s a narrow gauge railway, as was once common in industry in Britain. A few old trucks had also survived and were dotted about the place.

Narrow gauge railway, IslingtonI took many photos, most of which would be of interest only to nerds like me. But check out the picture on the left. A pillar of the factory goes straight through the railway track, suggesting to me that the line pre-dates the factory (or at least, that part of it).

The trucks have had their bodies replaced, so even if we assume they’re original, it’s hard to tell what they would have looked like during their working lives. However, they were very light to push over cobbles, and even with their original bodies I suspect they would not have been difficult to move on rails. Long story short, I don’t think this railway would ever have been locomotive worked, although I suspect it would once have been longer. Two tracks are in situ, one of which I suspect would have been a siding used for storage. Unfortunately, I’ve been able to find nothing on Google about this railway, and the rest of the area has been built over.

City Road BasinI had a quick shufti at the City Road Basin, seen on the right. This was once an important industrial site, built in 1820 (was this the date when our mystery railway appeared?) and the closest canal basin to the City. Despite its profitable location, like the rest of Britain’s canal system, it’s become more-or-less obsolete in recent years. There have been some residential developments, but even on a sunny Saturday afternoon, the place had an air of quiet loneliness about it.

Bantam tug, City Road BasinThe little boat on the left deserves some brief attention. It’s a Bantam tug. These were built in Brentford in the 1950s and 60s to push and pull barges on the canals. Several have been preserved and several more remain in service. Life is obviously slower on the waterways. Or they’re just pretty good tugboats.

City Road Underground StationAs I turned on to City Road, the building on the right caught my eye. At first glance, it’s just your standard common-or-garden eyesore. It looks like an ancillary building for the tower block behind. Yet there were one or two things that made me wonder. For instance, it looks like there’s quite a large door that’s been boarded over at the front. And though it’s not entirely clear in this photo, there’s some architectural detail that seems a little fancy for the rough-and-ready architecture on display behind.

My suspicions were confirmed when I got home. This is, in fact, an abandoned Tube station, or as much as survives. It’s City Road, opened by the City and South London Railway in 1901. It lay between Angel and Old Street on what is now the Northern Line, City Branch. It was never a very popular station, and to be honest even today it’s not hard to see why. It’s only about 15-20 minutes gentle stroll from Angel to Old Street, and it’s not like there’s anything around here that really justifies a whole Tube station.

When rebuilding work was carried out on the stations of the C&SLR in the 1920s, the Company decided to cut their losses and simply shut the station down rather than waste money bringing it up to then-modern standards. Aside from being used as an air raid shelter, the station saw no further use after 1924. The only reason there’s anything above ground at all is because it was decided to convert the old lift shafts into ventilation shafts – what survives is the brickwork that once surrounded those shafts, the rest having been demolished. There are also remains at platform level, though I’ll own I’ve not seen them myself.

Honestly, this place is pretty good if you like your abandoned transport systems. If T. S. Eliot was an industrial archaeologist, he’d probably write a poem about it.

Further Reading – An excellent feature showing the below-ground remains of City Road.


Filed under 19th century, 20th Century, Buildings and architecture, Camden, Canals and Waterways, Geography, History, Islington, London, London Underground, Photos, Psychogeography, Shoreditch, The City, Transport

Canal Penetration

I do not appear to understand the concept of a short walk. This fact was brought home to me on Sunday. Having attended a wedding on Wednesday, I was feeling somewhat guilty at the Elvis-level calorie intake I had managed that day, and therefore had resolved to behave myself with a little more restraint. Sunday, I thought, would be an ideal day to get a little exercise. I thought it might be nice to do some more of the Regent’s Canal.

The Regent’s Canal, if you’re not familiar with it (though you may have some passing acquaintance with it if you’re a regular reader of this blog), is a waterway running from the Thames at Limehouse to the Grand Junction Canal at Paddington. The canal was opened in two sections – from Paddington to Camden in 1816 and Camden to Limehouse in 1820. In those days, before decent roads and railways, canals were the arteries of industry. The Grand Junction Canal was the quickest means of transporting goods in quantity from the industrial Midlands to London. The Regent’s Canal therefore served an important economic purpose, as it formed the final link between the Midlands and the Port of London and therefore the rest of the world. It survived the coming of the railways and the roads, but by the 1930s was largely obsolete.

Today, although there is a small amount of cargo, it’s primarily used for pleasure craft. The warehouses and factories that once lined its route have either been demolished or repurposed (most notably, one major interchange between rail and canal is now Camden Lock Market and the Stables). The towpath is a popular route with cyclists, walkers and idiots (yo).

My original intention was to only walk a short section of the canal, say Camden to King’s Cross or Islington. But I have this tendency, once I start walking, to keep on going far longer than is perhaps wise. As a result, I ended up walking all the way to Limehouse Basin. As I had previously walked from Camden to Paddington (hence the photos you have been seeing so far), I can now say that I have walked the full length of the canal.

From a psychogeographical point of view, what’s interesting about this walk is that it let me see familiar places from a different point of view. Of course, I’d seen the canal at Paddington, Regent’s Park, Camden, King’s Cross, St Pancras, Caledonian Road, Islington, Hackney and Limehouse before. Indeed, I’ve written about it in at least two of those locations in this very blog. But it had just been a landmark then, with no sort of context. I had some vague awareness that this stretch of canal was the same as that stretch of canal, but only as a theoretical thing. To experience the whole thing from a boat’s eye view, as it were, was rather novel. I think I’ve been enlightened in some way.

Anyway, I’ve waffled on for far too long already, given that this was supposed to be a photo-ey entry. I shall keep the prattle to a minimum from here on in, and instead continue to present my (usual crappy) photographs in geographical order from Paddington to Limehouse. Camden Lock is a notable omission here,  due to the fact that on neither of the walks presented here did I actually intend to document the entire canal.

One last point I would like to make is the range of contrast as you go along the river, from affluent Regent’s Park and Little Venice to the post-industrial landscape of the Docklands. I’ll shut up now. For now.

Sorry, me again. At this point on the walk, the canal cut through the hill at Islington, and I had to leave the towpath. Some explanation may be needed for the following photos.

I snapped this because I had walked along this road once before, a couple of years ago, desperately hungover. I was leaving the Barnsbury flat of a friend we shall simply call The Monster early one Sunday morning. I attracted disapproving looks from pious souls. Anyway, to end up here again was rather surprising.

I eventually reached Angel – you may recall that my first paid acting gig was near here. Despite my familiarity with the area, I wasn’t entirely sure how to get to the canal. Fortunately, this sign guided me. It may also explain some of the stranger sights coming up.

Isn’t this just the dearest little owl?

Spitalfields already? God be damned.

And Shoreditch! How we are honoured!

This is a nice thing to do with a block of council flats. Photographic portraits of local folk. It’s like Eastenders, only without the death and unimaginable horror.

Hackney. If you feel a chill down your spine, that is because we are but a stone’s throw from the Last Tuesday Society’s sinister museum.

A dilapidated narrowboat advocating the cleaning up of canals. This would be that famous bargees’ humour I’ve heard so much about.

Some sort of junction. Further investigation is required, I feel – especially as there’s something familiar about this canal here.

Lo the Isle of Dogs!

Herons are basically the easiest birds in the world to photograph. How I managed to make this one blurry enough to shame the most avid Bigfoot enthusiast is therefore beyond me.

I feel this toy boat has a story to tell.

We are so close, me hearties, I can practically taste that lime!

Is that not the viaduct of the London and Blackwall Railway?

It is! Limehouse! We made it! Long live, long live!

I say “we” made it, but mostly you just looked at photos. I didn’t want to make a big thing of this.

The Thames as the sun begins to set.

The Docklands Light Railway at Westferry. Everyone wants to get on the seats at the front of the train, but for a novel experience I recommend the seats at the back as you enter the tunnel for Bank. It’s like disappearing down a giant oesophagus.


Further Reading: – An earlier entry focusing on a particular part of the Regent’s Canal.


Filed under 18th century, 19th century, Arts, Buildings and architecture, Camden, Canals and Waterways, Current events, East End and Docklands, Flora and Fauna, Geography, Hackney, History, Islington, Kings Cross, London, Markets, Museums, Photos, Port of London, Psychogeography, Rambling on and on, Randomness, Regency, Rivers, Shoreditch, Sports and Recreation, Suburbia, Thames, Transport

Through the ruins

I’d like to take you on a voyage through time and space to this time a week ago when boredom and the vague desire to do a particular thing intersected, resulting in my finally getting around to visiting the revamped Museum of London.

Really, given the amount of time and effort I spend researching (if you can call it research) the history of London, this ought to be my favourite museum. Unfortunately, I have in recent years found it a little frustrating – there’s no denying that it has some very fine exhibits, but so many times I’ve dropped in on a whim only to discover that half the place is closed off.

Unlike the museums of South Kensington or the British Museum, the Museum of London is located on the edge of the old City. The City is, frankly, not the liveliest of places at weekends. On the left you see the Bank of England, practically deserted.

Rather than change trains for the sake of going one stop to St Paul’s, the closest stop to the Museum, I tend to get off at Bank. Bank is perhaps my least favourite Tube station, consisting as it does of seemingly miles of crowded pedestrian tunnels where the going is always slow and the temperature is always too hot for comfort. Like many similar stations, Bank was not originally intended as an interchange – rather, it happens to be a desirable place for a railway company to serve. The idea that passengers might want to change between Central, District, Circle, Northern and Waterloo and City Lines without ascending to street level was a bit of an afterthought, and the Docklands Light Railway even more so. I’m told that Bank Station is haunted – commuters and late-night staff have reported a strange and unearthly presence, a feeling of unease as if they are being watched. I suspect further investigation would reveal a piece of electrical equipment vibrating at a frequency of 17Hz to 19Hz, but then I’m no expert.

The area was more-or-less empty apart from a few bewildered-looking tourists. My trusty street atlas let me down, as several of the roads that in theory were quick routes to the Museum were in practice gated off. Roads like the one on the right. This is exactly the sort of thing that Woody Guthrie was complaining about. At this point, someone normally tells me to get an iPhone and I normally say “No thank you, I would far rather spend the money on opium and whores.”

Eventually, and somewhat unexpectedly, I came to Moorgate station. Had I known how close this was to the museum, I would most certainly have alighted here rather than Bank.

Instead, I climbed up to the highwalks of the Barbican. I don’t know why, given my hatred of Brutalist architecture, but there’s something I find strangely compelling about the Barbican Estate. It’s got a weird, retro-futuristic desolation about it. I think I’d like to make a film just so I could film something there. I’m not the only person who thinks it’s alright, as the whole place has been Grade II listed.

And yet, despite the absolutely 1960s/70s look of the place, you get odd little pockets of the ancient city peeping through. For instance, this section of the medieval City Walls that survives. There are a number of other medieval fortifications around here, not least of which is the section of wall outside the Museum of London itself. These were built, as you might imagine, on the old Roman walls.

I must admit that I’m a little loath to go into massive detail about the Museum itself, as I fear I would snap up about eight entries’ worth of information. However, the World City galleries were what I was here for, so I suppose I probably ought to talk a bit about those.

"People called Romans, they go, to the house?"

These galleries cover the city from the rebuilding in the aftermath of the Great Fire of London to the present day. This was when the city really took shape – indeed, I would go further and say that it’s really in the last 200 years that the city took on its modern form. This was when the Docklands appeared, when the city expanded to absorb Westminster, Kensington, Islington, Southwark and the suburbs, when industry brought people flooding in from the countryside and, in the second half of the twentieth century, when the city developed its modern ethnic makeup.

The new galleries are certainly impressive – large amounts of exhibition space are devoted to subjects such as pleasure gardens, fashion, ethnic and civil tensions and entertainment. The old star exhibits – the Victorian street scene and the frankly tasteless Lord Mayor’s carriage – are still there, and there’s even a gallery of London art from the 19th century to the present day. I was quite excited by the puppets of Andy Pandy and Bill and Ben the Flowerpot Men, who I recall watching as a small child (lest you think this to be an anachronism, I should point out that I saw them on video). I also noted the same edition of The Alternative Guide to London as I own on display in the 1960s cabinets, which was cool.

After finishing up, I had a stroll in the direction of Spitalfields for no particular reason. I’ve not really explored this area – passed through several times, but never had a proper footle around.

Spitalfields Market looked interesting, so I headed in that direction. It’s a fine place for fashionable folk, I have no doubt, but I found it a little too glossy if you know what I mean. I like those markets that are a bit illogical. Still, worth bearing in mind if you’re looking for presents. I must confess to indulging my sweet tooth at a fudge stall, where I purchased some rather decadent chocolate chilli fudge. I was also rather tempted by the fudge containing marshmallows, but let’s not be silly here.

Late on a Sunday afternoon is perhaps not the best time to come upon Brick Lane Market, so perhaps it can be forgiven for not quite matching up to my expectations. But I couldn’t help noticing that much of what was on sale was identical to what I’d seen in Spitalfields Market less than half an hour previously. Come to think of it, quite a lot of it was identical to the stuff I’d seen in Camden the day before. This and the sheer volume of East End hipsters led me to head off in the direction of Shoreditch High Street. From there to Old Street and a Tube home.

I think I’ll finish where I started – in the deserted City. In the Museum of London, there’s a display made up of status updates, tweets etc. from Londoners’ social networking sites, and this one particularly struck home:

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Filed under 19th century, 20th Century, Arts, Buildings and architecture, Current events, East End and Docklands, Fashion and trends, Food, Geography, History, London, London Underground, Markets, Medieval London, Museums, Photos, Psychogeography, Rambling on and on, Randomness, Roman London, Shopping, Shoreditch, The City, The Gates, tourism, Transport

Hobos: A User’s Guide

One point I have often lamented is the fact that I am seemingly always targeted in the street by anyone who wants anything – a petition signed, a subscription to the charity they’re really keen on as of this morning, a new convert to their religion or whatever. Having become fixated on this idea that I definitely want to do this thing, they will often become upset when I tell them that actually, I’m really not interested. Or, as I usually put it, “Sorry, I’m – (points vaguely forward as if to indicate something urgent and self-explanatory)“.

Now, one I find particularly difficult to deal with is your man the beggar. These take various forms, each one more awkward than the last. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate that not all beggars are faking it, but let’s just say there are a few who spoil it for the rest. The Big Issue is a pretty good read though, and I do occasionally pick that up (not by mugging the vendor, either, despite some scurrilous rumours ha ha ha!!!!!!1!).

We are told by the Metropolitan Police that it’s not really a good idea to give to individual beggars, as the money is often used to maintain addictions, to fund organised crime or both. Those who are enthusiasts of self-reliance say that genuine beggars become dependent on the generosity of others when they should be working to build a life for themselves. And the newspapers often howl about how beggars come to London and make millions of pounds a day and it’s disgusting. Sorry, being cynical about the media there, force of habit, but it is true that London is rich pickings for the beggar.

All that being said, here’s a field guide to the techniques beggars use (with me, anyway). You may wish to make a game of it.

And before you get all huffy and accuse me of being insensitive (which I am) or exploitative (which I am), there are some links to homeless charities at the bottom of the entry.

The Sob Story

This one often won’t portray themselves as a homeless person, but instead will claim to be a regular person just like you or me who has fallen on hard circumstances. There will be a long story with many exciting twists and turns which ultimately ends with a request for money. For some reason, a common opener is the phrase “Do you speak English?” Because in Central London, English speakers are evidently rare. The stories are never less than interesting – mugging is a common one, particularly if the beggar is female and doing a “damsel in distress” act. There was one chap who told me, twice in the same week, that he had a job interview in Potter’s Bar in two hours’ time. I told him he should stop applying for jobs in Potter’s Bar, and recognition dawned. A particularly memorable one was a fellow in Leicester Square who was on an epic quest to retrace his lost family.

I-Spy for 20 points.

The Interruption

This one will come up to you when you’re doing something else – chatting to friends in the pub, browsing a shop or whatever. A friend of mine, who is much more openly rude than I am, did not take to being interrupted mid-conversation and demanded to know what the beggar would do in exchange.

I-Spy for 10 points.

The parrot

This is mostly seen among those beggars for whom English is not a first language, or even a second or third. There will be a brief spiel learnt off by heart, often slightly mangled by constant repetition and the speaker’s unfamiliarity with what they’re actually saying. There’s a chap on Southampton Row in the morning whose spiel is the words “Have you 20p?” repeated as often as possible per minute. Always with the exact same intonation. “Have you twen-ty peeeee? Have you twen-ty peeeee? Have you twen-ty peeeee?” As he’s not technically requesting the 20p, I tend to say “yes” and walk on.

I-Spy for 5 points.

The Guilt Trip

This is a thankful rarity, but not unknown in the West End. This is when you’re on a date, and the beggar comes along in the hope of emotionally blackmailing you into giving money because, after all, you wouldn’t want to look like a skinflint in front of the lovely young lady, would you now? Fortunately, the people I date tend to be as flint-hearted as me, so it’s all cool.

I-Spy for 20 points.

But how did you get through the ticket barrier?

This is one exclusive to trains and the Underground. This beggar will come into the carriage and launch into a spiel about how they’re very sorry to interrupt our journeys and they know we’re very busy, but [sob story] and we could find it in our hearts to spare whatever we can they’d be really grateful. Standard procedure among passengers is to pretend that today’s Metro is so interesting that they are totally oblivious to the outside world.

I-Spy for 5 points.

That’s not a tune

Related to the above is the scourge that is the accordionist. Now, I’ve known some very good buskers on the trains, but the accordion, like the bagpipes, is one of those instruments where so many people think that merely by getting more than one sound out of the bastard, they are playing a tune. Correct procedure is to throw the accordionist out of a window. In the days of slam-door trains, you could just chuck them out of the door, which was much easier.

I-Spy for 10 points

The Improvised Busker

I must admit, these guys do tend to be good for a laugh. Basically, this is someone busking using anything found on the street as an instrument. A traffic cone, a bucket or whatever. Whether they get a tune out of it or not is immaterial, the point is they tried, damn you.

I-Spy for 5 points.

Pushing your luck

Sometimes, occasionally, when a beggar is particularly annoying and persistent about their 20p and I can’t get away, but there are too many people around for my favoured ritual slaughter, I do grudgingly reach into my pocket. Having got this, suddenly the amount requested will go up – from 20p to a pound or sometimes higher. At this point, you are within your rights to demand that the beggar get down on their knees.

I-Spy for 15 points

Not even trying

Some beggars just can’t be arsed at all. Whether it’s a total lack of sob story, a poor effort, a self-contradictory tale or just plain rudeness, the great thing about these beggars is that you will never feel guilty or doubtful about holding on to your change. I recall one who was quite openly swigging from a can of Tennants while he explained how he was saving up for a hostel. And one the other day hadn’t figured out that women who have been on the streets six months do not, as a rule, have immaculate makeup.

I-Spy for 15 points.

When you have collected 1000 points, send the book along with a postal order for 20p to the usual address to receive a can of Special Brew!


We’re all bastards, but in a way, isn’t society the biggest bastard of all? Think about it.

Further reading


Filed under Bloomsbury, Booze, Crime, Current events, Fitzrovia, London, london bridge, London Underground, Politics, Shoreditch, Soho, tourism, Transport, Waterloo and Southwark, West End