New London morphologies

Posted on October 9, 2011


I drove today for the first time in five months. I drove in a city I have barely driven in before.  Today is Sunday.  A day when people used to choose to go for a drive.  A Sunday Drive.  Having hired a car, my partner and I set out on on our Sunday Drive.  We did so, not just so we could admire the passing scenery, but to understand our city’s map in three dimensions.  London is such a big city.  But it is certainly true that it is a city made of villages.  The roads that weave between these ancient settlements are now traffic choked, dreadful places.  Driving in London is certainly not what one would choose to go for one’s Sunday Drive.

We started off reasonably well – negotiating the car hire car-park and then out onto the main roads leading back to our neck of the woods.  Then, we poodled through back streets, taking in the villages and network of streets, parks, and the various architectural stamps of each.  The drive was not what I would call pleasant but it wasn’t awful either.  There was a modicum of stress brought about by driving on unfamiliar narrow streets and without any real London road craft to guide, but all that was to change.  It got truly awfully bad when we tried to go from east to west and where we hit the biggest snaggle of roads I have ever encountered, in North London.  Our attempts to turn back eastward across the hackney marshes resulted in us going around and around and around again in the biggest gyratory I have ever seen.  It was unbearably appalling and afterwards my partner declared that we would never, ever, drive in London again.  This was after I had already paid the yearly subscription for the car club which we are yet to use. Bugger!

Why am I bothering to relay this?  Well, one mission was accomplished today, and that was to determine that the places we had hoped to find near where we live don’t really exist.  We also were quickly able to rule off our list places which we would never want to live.  But more importantly, today demonstrated why London is not a place where people easily pop from one side to the other to visit friends for a quick cup of tea (something I knew but didn’t know know, if you know what I mean).  Certainly not by car anyway.  The journey was epic.  And even though we only spent three hours in the car it felt like a 24 hour rally.  Public transport on the other hand has opened up so much of London in a way that is creating new geographies.  The Docklands Light Railway (which of course goes so many places beyond the Docklands now) has enabled the south to be connected to the north, and the City to the East.  The Overground has similarly created a much-needed bridge between east and the west as well as reinforcing the new north-south links.  These new routes don’t follow the roads.  They go over and under industrial landscapes, canals, bridges, and the Thames.  The provide wonderful vistas of the city – candid views of the city from the side it didn’t know it would ever show – not from the street, but from behind the buildings.  Now, geographies which are separated on the ground by seemingly impassable barriers like free-ways, rivers, industrial zones, are able to be traversed quickly.

These two Londons – the one of the ancient paths now roads, and the newer one cutting across the older terrain – are not quite at cross-purposes but are on one level, worlds apart.  The gritty urban/industrial feel of Hackney Wick is now only a stop on the Overground away from Stratford the new retail hub of London – two completely different cultural landscapes, now perhaps uncomfortably joined.  The Docklands themselves transformed by hard-edged development in the 1990s, are now beginning to feel a little porous, no longer the preserve of the suited and booted. Who knows where London’s new morphology will settle.  The battle of the traditional street and village with the slightly space-age shuttles that bring interlopers to visit or stay is one which has more rounds to play.  And in that, let us not forget the humble bicycle – not a weapon of choice for the traditionalists, but an increasingly popular one for London’s young professional communities.

London’s edgy-ness will probably never diminish, but perhaps we are about to see some new edges forming while others disappear.