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Posts tagged ‘London’



I USED TO BE AN aficionado of the London Underground – or the Tube as they call it over there. I prided myself on being able to travel around London on the Underground with ease and without having to use a map.

Not any more I’m afraid. After twelve years of living in Paris, most of what I used to know about the London Underground appears to have been consigned to some dark corner of my brain, seemingly lost forever.

I was though, reacquainted with my old friend some time ago on a visit to London. Everything seemed to be much as I remembered it. That is to say, everything except the incessant security and health and safety announcements that were quite new to me and which seemed to pollute every corner of every station.Out of this maelstrom of new sounds, one stood out from all the others – “MIND THE GAP!”

It seems that, presumably in the interests of the great God, Health and Safety, or more likely, to protect the Underground authorities from litigious passengers, someone has decided that passengers or, as I believe we are called these days, customers, must be warned of the danger of falling down the gap between the train and the platform. Hence the public address announcement – “MIND THE GAP!”

Health a Safety and litigious customers travel with the wind so, not surprisingly, “MIND THE GAP!, has travelled across La Manche to the Paris Metro – although, as so often, the French do it far more elegantly.

“MIND THE GAP! – The French Way:

As always, The French use three words for every one word in English so “MIND THE GAP!” becomes, “Attention a la marche en descendant du train” – more of a request than a command.

The question is: “What constitutes a gap?”  And how big does the gap have to be to warrant an official warning to the great travelling public? Who decides?

This gap at the Metro Station Concorde on Line 1 warrants a warning, as does a similar gap at Charles de Gaulle – Etoille. Several other platforms have a similar warning but the same gap on other Metro station platforms do not. Why?

Is there “gap” prejudice?

As so often in France, a fonctionnaire in an office somewhere, appointed but not elected, clearly has the supreme authority to determine the course of our lives – to authorise whether or not the travelling public should be warned to “MIND THE GAP!”

Line 1 from Tuilleries to Concorde – including advice about “pickpockets” and, of course, “MIND THE GAP!

Wherever you travel, stay safe and, above all, “MIND THE GAP!” – with or without a warning!


A Surprise at St Pancras

ON MONDAY MORNING of this week I found myself at St Pancras station in London. I had survived unscathed the Eurostar disruption caused by the recent snow in both France and the UK and so, here I was, with time to spare, waiting to meet some people for a meeting.

I ventured into the excellent Foyles bookshop on the lower level of St Pancras and browsed the books on sale – a wonderful feast as always. I received a call to say that the people I was due to meet were in the Costa Café at the other end of the station so I left Foyles and set off to meet them.

On the way, and much to my surprise,  I came across this group of people standing in a huddle in the middle of the station concourse  They were singing.

Had I arrived earlier I could have recorded more but as it was I was only able to record this short piece. Nevertheless, it brightened up my day.


London Sound Survey Blog

Some time ago, Ian Rawes invited me to submit a guest post to his blog on the much respected and much visited London Sound Survey website. I was very pleased to do so. The London Sound Survey site focuses on capturing and preserving both the current and historical sounds of London and is well worth a visit.

I gave Ian’s invitation much thought. I wanted to try to capture a sense of the kind of recordings I make but also a sense of Paris, this wonderful city that I live in. In the end, this is what I came up with.

A Useful Fantasy

Street recording has fascinated me for longer than I can remember. The fascination is rooted in the attempt to capture that gratuitous, never-ending show for which no ticket is needed. The phrase is not mine but that of Robert Doisneau, the great French street photographer, who also said, “There are days when simply seeing feels like happiness itself … You feel so rich, the elation seems almost excessive and you want to share it”. Substitute “listening” for “seeing” and that’s pretty much how I feel about street recording.

I have a fantasy. I want to sit outside the Café Séverin on the corner of the Place Saint-Michel and point a microphone down the narrow street, the rue de la Huchette. I will record the sounds of that street for twenty-four hours. I will then turn the clock back ten years and do another twenty-four hour recording from the same place. I will turn the clock back again another ten years and so on until I find myself recording the same street a hundred years ago.

A street which is now a bustling tourist trap full of bars, restaurants, kebab shops and expensive beer, would have been very different then although the buildings would have been more or less the same as they are today. A hundred years ago the rue de la Huchette was also a bustling place comprising two hotels, the Hôtel du Caveau and the Hôtel Normandie, three butchers one of which was a horse butcher, a newspaper shop, a taxidermist, a bookbinder, a yarn and thread shop, a dairy, a bakery, a draper, a barber, a laundry, a grocery shop, a goldfish shop, a music shop, a doctor, a dentist and inevitably, a bordel. Then, as now, a whole community lived in the apartments above the shops.

And what would I learn from this fantasy, from this gratuitous, never-ending show for which no ticket is needed? I would learn much, not only about the sounds of the rue de la Huchette over a hundred years, but how those sounds have changed and evolved. I would have recorded a changing and evolving atmosphere and sense of place. I would learn how life was lived in that street then, compared to how it is lived now. I would learn that the bordel is now a kebab shop. I would have brought the rue de la Huchette to life in a way that no photograph could. I would have recorded a living social history and, given what has happened over the last hundred years, a National history too.

My fantasy of course will never see the light of day. But if the street recordings I and thousands of other people make today serve as a valuable, living, social history for historians and even sound enthusiasts in a hundred years time then our efforts will have been more than rewarded.

Robert Doisneau was quite right, “You feel so rich, the elation seems almost excessive and you want to share it”.

Go to Ian’s site  London Sound Survey to see this post on his blog page along with many other interesting posts.


A Tale of Three Stations

I have just returned from a short business trip to the UK. I left home last Sunday, walked to the end of my street and caught the 43 bus to the Gare du Nord and then the Eurostar to London St Pancras. Whilst in London I also had occasion to visit London King’s Cross station. Having been to these three railway stations I thought I would do a little research and then add some sound colour.

Paris Gare du Nord

Paris Gare du Nord is one of the six large terminus stations of the SNCF mainline network in Paris. It handles trains to Northern France as well as to various international destinations such as Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. Measured by the number of passengers, around 180 million per year, it is the busiest railway station in Europe.

The first Gare du Nord was built by the Bridge and Roadway Engineers on the behalf of the Chemin de Fer du Nord company, which was managed by Léonce Reynaud, professor of architecture at the École Polytechnique. The station was inaugurated on 14 June 1846, the same year as the launch of the Paris – Amiens – Lille rail link. Since the station turned out to be too small in size, it was partially demolished in 1860 to provide space for the current station. The original station’s façade was removed and transferred to Lille.

The president of the company Chemin de Fer du Nord, James Mayer de Rothschild, chose the French architect Jacques Ignace Hittorff to design the current station. Construction lasted from May 1861 to December 1865, but the new station opened for service while still under construction in 1864. The façade was designed around a triumphal arch and used many slabs of stone. The building has the usual U-shape of a terminus station. The main support beam is made out of cast iron. The support pillars inside the station were made at Alston & Gourley’s ironworks in Glasgow in the United Kingdom, the only country to have a sufficiently large foundry to do so.

Like other Parisian railway stations, the Gare du Nord rapidly became too small to deal with the increase in railway traffic. In 1884, engineers were able to add five supplementary tracks. The interior was completely rebuilt in 1889 and an extension was built on the eastern side to serve suburban rail lines. More expansion work was carried out between the 1930s and the 1960s.

In 1994, the arrival of Eurostar trains required another reorganisation of the rail tracks.

The Gare du Nord has served as a backdrop in numerous French films, for example in Les Poupées Russse.

In US movies, both the exterior and the interior of the Gare du Nord are seen in the 2002 film The Bourne Identity with Matt Damon and again in the trilogy’s finale, The Bourne Ultimatum, released in August 2007. It was also seen in Ocean’s Twelve in 2004, and Mr Bean’s Holiday in 2007.

The station is also mentioned in Dan Brown’s book, the Da Vinci Code.

I always find the Gare du Nord to be a lively place. Yes, it has it’s share of beggars and other malcontents and it can be fearsomely cold in winter, but it generally has a hustle and bustle about it which I quite enjoy.

This is a recording I made inside the Gare du Nord.

Gare du Nord

London St Pancras

London St Pancras train station has to be one of the most impressive railway stations in the world and it’s a station I always enjoy visiting.

It was designed by William Barlow in 1863 with construction commencing in 1866. The famous Barlow train shed arch spans 240 feet and is over 100 feet high at its apex. On its completion in 1868 it became the largest enclosed space in the world.

One of the most recognisable features of St Pancras station today, the red brick Grade 1 listed Gothic front facade was created as part of a competition in 1865 and became the Midland Grand Hotel designed by Sir Gilbert Scott and built between 1868 to 1876. As a note of interest, Gilbert Scott also designed the iconic red telephone box. In 1935 the Midland Grand Hotel was closed and the building became railway offices known as the St Pancras Chambers.

The station performed an important role during both world wars, acting as a meeting place for troops, a departure point for soldiers off to war, and to help transport children out of London to the safety of the countryside. During WWII the station was hit during the Blitz on London. Despite the devastation, London Midland and Scottish Railway engineers soon had the platforms working again.

The greatest threat to the station came in 1966 with plans to amalgamate King’s Cross and St Pancras. However public opinion had been sharpened by the demolition of Euston in 1962. Sir John Betjeman took up the cause to protect the station and in 1967 the Government listed the station and hotel as Grade 1.

The St Pancras Chambers were used as BR offices until 1985 before falling vacant in the late eighties. In the early nineties emergency safeguarding works were undertaken to combat roof leakages and general decay.

High-speed rail arrived at St Pancras International on 14 November 2007 and all Eurostar services now operate to and from there. This followed a massive redevelopment of St Pancras at a cost of £800 million. The restoration work has seen the Barlow Shed completely reglazed and the paintwork taken back to its intended pale sky blue. Where possible the building has been restored by recycling the brickwork from the original building or sourcing clay from the original clay sources in the Midlands. The master plan for the extension to St Pancras was originally created by Sir Norman Foster, and has since been developed by RLE’s Chief Architect Alistair Lansley. The glass extension has been designed to house the extra long Eurostar trains in their new home.

The completion of St Pancras is just one small part of the £6 billion project High Speed 1 (formerly known as the CTRL) and just the beginning of the redevelopment and regeneration of the King’s Cross area.

St Pancras remains one of the greatest Victorian buildings in London with impressive Victorian Gothic architecture. The ridge and furrow glazing of the Barlow shed contains 14,080 glass panels, giving a total glassed area of nearly 10,000m2… Almost 2 football pitches – or 38 tennis courts. The bottom third of the roof is finished with 300,000 slates hand crafted and supplied from Wales.

The St Pancras Chambers is being restored into a 5 star Marriot hotel with luxury private apartments on the upper levels.

St Pancras International is the new home of some specially commissioned pieces of public art for the station.

The Meeting Place is a 9m high bronze of a couple locked in an intimate pose by the world-renowned sculptor Paul Day. The couple stand underneath the famous St Pancras clock at the apex of the Barlow shed.

Sir John Betjeman was responsible for saving both the St Pancras chambers and the station from demolition in the 1960s. In tribute to the famous poet and railway lover an 8 1/2ft sculpture by Martin Jennings has been designed to stand at platform level to celebrate the man and his poetry. The sculpture features the poet looking up in awe at the splendour of the Barlow shed whilst catching hold of his hat.

The famous St Pancras clock has been reconstructed by the original makers Dent, and now hangs high at the apex of the Barlow arch once more.

St Pancras actually combines three stations under one roof, the Eurostar station, the Midland station and the north-south commuter station.

This is a recording of  commuter trains at St Pancras.

Commuter Trains at St Pancras

London King’s Cross

King’s Cross has to be my least favourite of these three stations.

It was opened on the 14th October 1852. It replaced the temporary train station at Maiden Lane which was built by the Great Northern Railway in1850 and stood for two years, until Kings Cross’ completion. George Turnbull was the resident engineer for Great Northern Railway between 1846-49 and he drew up the first plans for the Kings Cross Station. Lewis Cubitt completed the designs and the station was built by the construction company of John and William Jay from 1851 to 1852. The station was built on the site of an old fever and smallpox hospital. The station opened in 1852 with 8 platforms.

The accompanying Great Northern Hotel was also designed by Lewis Cubit and it was opened on the 17th May 1854. The station was enhanced in the 1920’s and the current concourse and a travel centre was added in 1973.

In 1972, British Rail constructed an intended temporary structure at the facade of the station. The structure is still there and is seen by many as detracting from the original beauty of Lewis Cubitt design (which is Grade I-listed). The current redevelopment plan intends to remove the ‘temporary’ structure.

In 1973, the Provisional IRA threw a bomb into the booking hall of the station, injuring six people and causing much damage to the booking hall.

In 1987 a catastrophic underground fire occurred claiming the lives of 31 people in the Kings Cross St Pancras tube interchange. The fire was believed to have been started by a commuter throwing a match down the side of an escalator.

I find that the inside of King’s Cross Station has nothing to commend it at all. It is claustrophobic and very oppressive. It is always full of passengers, or do we say “customers” these days, standing because there is nowhere to sit down. There are more security cameras covering every aspect of the building than I’ve ever seen anywhere. I counted forty of them and then I stopped counting. The public address announcements are littered with security announcements saying that unattended baggage will be destroyed by the “security services”. Who exactly are these “security services” one wonders.

Unlike the Gare du Nord or St Pancras, King’s Cross is not a railway station that I would choose to visit unless it was absolutely necessary.

Here is an atmosphere recording I made inside King’s Cross.

King’s Cross