Sunday 31 May 2015

London Wanderings #6 - Secrets and Green Sheds

In 'From Hell', Alan Moore writes about landmarks in London drawing unseen patterns across the city, providing power that goes unseen by most people. In that, the landmarks are phallic spires, like Cleopatra's needle, that formed a pentacle.

For me, it's not so much the sinister implications of 'From Hell' that I'm interested in (as much as I love that book) - it's the idea of secret patterns across London.

There are networks across London that are old and mysterious. Not necessarily secretive as such, but ones that serve a specific function, and don't serve much other function. And if you're not part of that function, they're almost like gated communities. But ones that you don't see.

In Terry Pratchett's discworld series, Death makes the observation that people simply don't see things that don't make sense to them. And there's certainly an element of truth in that. I know this because of how long it took me to consciously notice the green huts.

Cabmens Shelter Wellington Place 2" by oyxman .
Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons
I work near Victoria, and when I walk to work, there's a small green hut that I pass. I used to work in St John's Wood, and there's one there too. You can't see into them - they're basically like sheds. But they have little serving hatches, and they usually have prices as well for teas, coffees and hot food.

This is because they're little cafes, designed for use by cabbies. And not just the kind of cabbies that drive around in black cabs either - they date back a hundred and forty years. And were designed for use by cabbies back in the days of hansom cabs. Inside, they have small benches and long tables, so a few of the drivers can have a break, a sit-down and a coffee. And so they've remained, many decades later.

There aren't many around these days. Just thirteen now. A small handful still dotted around and in use. I'd become aware about their function, but only understood their history a bit more due to this notice on the one in Embankment. They're run by the Cabmen's Shelter Fund, and still serve the same function they always have.

While you can buy teas and coffees from some of them (and fried egg sandwiches and ice creams in the summer), the insides remain secretive outside of heritage open days. Even in the days of sat-navs, they're the exclusive domain of those that have mastered the knowledge. That know the maps and streets of London in a way none of the rest of us ever do.

The people that know this city's routes, streets and roads, that meet people and connect them from one place to another, have their own beacons lit across the city. Their own secret maps, with safety and warmth dotted across London. A series of green huts, making sense of the city.

They're out in the open, and you can pass them by and interact with them a little bit.

But they're not for you.

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