On Thursday evening I was up in London on a lightning trip to the British Library at St Pancras. I decided to walk back to Victoria afterwards. On the streets this year seems even less Chrismassy than last, and the Bloomsbury could have been any night in winter, dark and unfestive, but cosily so, and I ritually squeezed myself in and out of a busy secondhand bookshop on Marchmont Street because that’s what you do in Bloomsbury.
This was a treat to find again – the old entrance to the tramline on Southampton Row. It runs under the Kingsway to the Embankment, opened in 1906, raised for double-deckers in the 1929.
The original cobbles and rails are still there. Tramlines were taken up everywhere else in London, and cobbles were covered in tarmac, but here there was no need, so they’re just as they left them. The central rail is for the electric current. The Kingsway tram couldn’t run on an overhead line. The lower sections of the huge wrought iron lamps in this photo are still fixed in the stone pillars. It’s like a fossil, preserved almost intact since the last driver went home almost seventy years ago.
It’s easy to forget now that it’s just an extremely wide road, what a statement the Kingsway was when it was opened in 1905. It was named for King Edward VII and linked the north and south of the city, like a great processional way. Massive neo-Baroque architecture reminded you that London was the new Rome. One of the last of London’s old slum ‘rookeries’ was flattened to make way for the redevelopment. Perhaps the residents were rehoused in Peabody Estates. I hope so.
Almost everything in London has changed since I moved there twenty-five years ago, but this hasn’t, and it must’ve been the same for fifty years before that. It’s too busy in the daytime but I used to stop there and peer down into the tunnel on my way home from the pub in town. It’s a haunting place. For fifty years it was part of the busy modern high-tech hub and London’s blood pumped through here, . Then just as suddenly it was forgotten. Now it’s alone with its thoughts. I’ve seen the Kingsway tram tunnel used as a film set, and it’s being used as storage now, but like other numinous places, so far it’s resisted being turned into anything else. There’s a proposal – a very sensible proposal – to make it an underground cycleway. I’d have to say that’s a brilliant idea, and if they do I’d love to ride it. But I’m glad I remember it as it was.
I’m reminded of the King Alfred Centre here in Hove, also on a road called the Kingsway, named again for King Edward VII. The King Alfred was as a public gym, commandeered for a training school by the Royal Navy as soon at was completed in 1939, and named HMS King Alfred. It was built on the site of the old smugglers’ wharf, a lawless place by the beach where they beat the Revenue Men in a pitched battle. Now it’s the home of Cheetahs Gym. It is under constant threat of redevelopment, but yet another redevelopment plan has just fallen through. The power of place is too strong. The other day I went past and I was glad to see a pair of rottweilers tied to the bike rack by the door.