THE TAKE-IT-ALL-IN COMMUTE TOM OUGH
Want to hate a place? Commute through it. If my workplace were accessible only via a gentle float across Lake Como, the little boat pulled through turquoise waters by a team of glittering mermaids, I would hate it. If I could only get to work by time-travelling to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon at the height of their verdant splendour, I would hate that too.
As it is, I work in a foul London hellscape known to those outside it as Victoria. It is so crowded, polluted and ugly that I would loathe it even if I didn’t have to travel through it daily. Whether I’m cycling or just walking the short distance from the Tube station to the office, I take the quickest possible route and try to screen out my surroundings, up to and sometimes including oncoming heavy goods vehicles.
There’s a solution to all of this, and it involves a fleet of steamrollers equipped with wrecking balls, but for budgetary reasons I was forced to settle for the more practical option of – grits teeth – learning to enjoy the journey a bit more.
I asked Mike Althorpe, otherwise known as the London Ambler, whether the Victoria area had anything going for it. Althorpe is an urban historian who conducts walking tours of this part of London and others, and I hoped that he might help me turn my commute into something that, if not exactly pleasurable, might at least be interesting.
Turns out Victoria is fairly engrossing. “As districts go, it’s a real mongrel sort of place,” Althorpe told me. “Most people only know it for Victoria Street, which is a challenging street at best to appreciate” – hell is tourists with wheelie suitcases – “but it has a really fascinating history.”
He told me how it was all marshland until the mid-19th century, and that, when it was finally built on, was the site of “an explosion of a new urban typology that, I suppose, is more Parisian than London.”
Althorpe was talking about the tall, elegant mansion blocks to the north of the station, but there are other landmark housing projects nearby too. A little further south, he told me, closer to Pimlico station, is Lillington Gardens, an estate whose construction from 1961 onwards marked the end of the fashion for high-rise public housing. The architects wanted the flats to feel individual, and many of those flats together comprise a huge brick ziggurat sort of building of whose existence I’d been utterly ignorant.
There was more: Italianate terraces, an estate built with the principles of the arts and crafts movement, the forbidding, tall-towered red-brick church of St James the Less. The next morning, I walked to work from Pimlico so that I could see all this stuff for myself and, for once, found the journey to be an improving experience. I still think wheelie suitcases should be rounded up and burnt, though.
Prompts and a ‘to-do’ list help me set some achievable objectives for my drive into work