Archive for April, 2012

10 Downing Street, Larry and Henry

Of the houses of Downing Street, Churchill said, “shaky and lightly built by the profiteering contractor whose name they bear.” And he was right as the original houses were not built to last. But lasted they have.

No. 10 is of course home to the Prime Minister and No. 11 to the Chancellor but a No. 9 and a No. 12 also exist. This is fairly academic though as the buildings now form a single complex within anyway. There were originally around twenty houses and the current No. 10 was in fact No. 5 until a renumbering took place in 1779.

My most recent visit gave me an opportunity to see some of No. 10’s most famous features up-close such as my new friend, Larry, the Downing Street cat. Larry was second to greet me, after the ever-present police officer, and did so from his perch on top of a radiator by the front door. Incidentally, the door has been made of metal since 1991 thanks to the IRA. The original is now in the Churchill War Rooms.

10 Downing Street incorporates what was once a separate mansion, Hampden House, behind. This is easy to understand once inside. One clue is a view, upon entering No. 10, to a pair of double doors some way ahead, at the end of a long corridor. The corridor is far too lengthy to exist within the footprint of the Downing house. The doors, incidentally, lead into the Cabinet Room.

It is at the rear of No. 10, within what was once Hampden House, that many of the best-known rooms are located. That includes the State Dining Room, the Pillared State Drawing Room and the famous staircase with portraits of previous Prime Ministers.

Everything within is to be used too and the building is no stuffy museum. Antique chairs are to be sat on and drawers to be filled. A travel chest by the front door which belonged to the Duke Of Wellington contains all manner of useful objects including Brasso, Blu Tack and a doorstop.

What I like most about 10 Downing Street is the contrast between its functions as a historic edifice and a working office. Behind some doors are rows of busy workers. Behind another is, of course, the Prime Minister’s flat. But expecting to find a glorious state room behind one particularly intriguing curved door, I found Henry the Hoover.


Queen Square Hotel Proposal

I wonder if anybody thought of Orwell’s predictions when philistines mercilessly destroyed the Union Congregational Church on Brighton’s Queen Square in 1984.

The church was replaced with an octagon-themed dystopian office block, Queen Square House. Rows of trees have been swapped for rows of scruffy workers on smoking breaks. An open road has been replaced with a taxi rank. The time has now come to replace Queen Square’s derelict ice rink.

I recently wrote about the objections of the residents of nearby Wykeham Terrace to plans by Conran & Partners for a six-storey hotel on the ice rink site. The proposals have since been revised but Wykeham residents along with various amenity societies, including the Montpelier & Clifton Hill Association and the St Nicholas Green Spaces Association, are still in opposition on the grounds of height and impact on historic surroundings.

My own view is that five principal storeys are entirely appropriate as this matches the neighbouring buildings on Queen Square. The inclusion of an extra roof storey, as proposed, does not particularly worry me either. I was initially concerned by the planned destruction of a neighbouring building, 11 Queen Square, so that it can be rebuilt in a not too dissimilar style but taller. This is a wise move as No. 11 currently looks too low. It is sensible too that the west side of the proposed hotel at roof level follows the building line of the adjoining structures.

As plans progressed, there was talk of access from Queen Square to St Nicholas’ Churchyard behind being included. This idea proved unpopular though and may well have meant the excavation of several graves. There were also concerns raised about the general impact of the hotel on the churchyard. I am inclined to support the applicants here as such historic environments should be shared as much as possible – even if this only means views from the hotel towards the church in this instance.

My own objections relate principally to the treatment of Queen Square itself. To squeeze in five principal storeys at the height of the neighbouring houses, a large chunk of sloping land at the top of the hill would have to be flattened. The excavation work would be so extensive that several buildings on the west side of Queen Square would be left floating higher than road level.

It is no dystopia but it could still be much improved.


Hove Civic Society CHP Proposals

It is inevitably the job of an amenity society to react to events as they unfold. After all, the activities of such groups revolve around the planning system, which is more often that not developer-led.

When Hove Civic Society was created in 1960 in response to one particularly inappropriate planning application, it is unlikely that its founders would have predicted the degree of pro-activity that is underway today through the direction of its current Chairman, Helmut Lusser.

An intriguing article appeared in The Argus recently that detailed a warm spot of sea around Shoreham Power Station’s cooling water outlet that had been discovered by the Honorary Secretary of Hove Civic Society, John Kapp. Rather than just enjoy the tropical temperatures for himself, the former engineer put forward an ambitious proposal to benefit the whole city.

The general principal behind combined heat and power (CHP) is the capture of wasted heat from a power station as a means to heat nearby areas. In a local context, and under the Hove Civic proposals, CHP concerns the use of Shoreham Power Station as both a source of electricity and a source of heat for the people of Brighton & Hove.

The incredible scheme would see hot water pumped away from the power station, all around the city, to heat over 100,000 homes. This would involve the installation of pipes beneath the streets of Brighton & Hove, similar to the way in which pipes for sewerage and water, along with cables for electricity, are installed as a matter of course.

The benefits are obvious. Boilers for central heating would become a thing of the past, and heating would be cheaper. But there are inescapable drawbacks though as well. The initial cost of such a project would be huge. Figures of over £2 billion have been put forward. The disruption would be massive too. Every street would need to be excavated and many listed buildings would need to be modified. Nevertheless, a debate must be had.

Sewers were constructed in Brighton from 1792; water pipes were added from 1834; and electricity was supplied from 1882. It would be interesting to think what the objections to these projects were at their respective times of conception. In each case, it would have been left to the pioneers of the day to progress matters.

I wish the Hove Civic Society the best of luck in its exciting endeavours.


All Saints Church Spiral Staircases

“Reminiscent of cathedrals” said Pevsner of Hove’s most dramatic place of worship. The most obvious buildings though, like All Saints Church on The Drive in Hove, have been written about so many times already. To be different, it is sometimes necessary to delve deeper – or higher as it is in this case.

After having designed St Barnabus Church nearby, and Truro Cathedral before that, John Pearson’s plans for a great church for Hove were approved in 1887 and its foundation stone laid in 1889. The Sussex sandstone that was used is both enchanting and, like that which was used on Lancing College Chapel, fragile. It has not lasted well.

All Saints is famous for its cavernous nave and intricate stonework but I wanted to see what is hidden out of sight. I had heard rumours of an unfinished tower and, in investigating this, I came across a series of intriguing concealed staircases and walkways that go unseen by those who regularly use the building.

At the west end of the south aisle, a rather inconspicuous locked door leads to a dusty and dark stone spiral staircase. A short climb takes keen explorers up to a platform-like level where a central panel can be removed to reveal a hole to provide dizzying views of the floor below. Though not obvious from inside, this portion of the building is the base of what was to be a bell tower. The hole was intended for bell ropes.

The next clue is a second spiral staircase that goes from the platform to, well, nowhere. It rises to roof level and then abruptly stops. A sharp drop awaits unwary climbers. The bell rope hole, the unfinished staircase and the stub of a roof outside are all reminders of the grand plans for a tower that were abandoned during the 1930s through lack of funds.

Several small wooden doors lead to all sorts of obscure nooks and crannies on the exterior of the building that maybe I would be quite unique in finding fascinating. I am not so sure though. Most people are intrigued to hear about the parts of buildings that are not immediately accessible. The best at All Saints may well be the gallery within the upper regions of the interior that gives unique views over the chancel and nave below.

My thanks goes to Father Phil and his team for the excellent tours.