It’s taken me a long time (all my life in fact) to pin down a trait that steers my way of looking at my surroundings – gardens, views, streets, above all buildings. My eyes fly to the oldest. In a park it is the oldest and grandest trees, avenues, fountains, gazebos – the evidence of past intentions. I am a prisoner of history (as indeed we all are) and my sentence demands that I look for its traces wherever I go.
It is most demanding in London, as the City dons and sheds its never-resting coats of scaffolding. The crane count in the past few years must be the highest it has ever been. It’s true that every great city throughout most of its history has been a building site; it’s only later generations that see the finished (for the time being) scheme. The Roman forum was never a pristine panorama of pillars and pediments; there was always scaffolding in the picture as another temple or monument went up or had a face-lift. Athens the same; Paris (imagine the mess when Haussmann was bulldozing his boulevardes) and now London. Exhibitionist towers are the mark of our times and we have lost control of where they go or how tacky they look. And a new threat goes beyond tacky: the threat of a ‘garden’ bridge to block London’s most majestic view, the Thames between Westminster and the City. Who in his right mind would try to grow plants on the most exposed possible site?
So I wander the town with my eyes skinned for relics of its past; easy to find in the quiet residential areas of terraces and squares, harder and harder in commercial streets where old buildings, if they have survived thus far, have their ground floors hacked out to make shops and their facades hidden by the banal fascias proclaiming Boots or Tesco.
The Victorian pub on the corner, the calmly handsome Georgian house-front hiding a solicitor’s office, the pompous Edwardian stone front of the old Town Hall (now a dance hall), a quirky bit of timbered building or even a war memorial, are precious clues about the past. These are the things that give you a sense of place. And they make me sad that all this history happened and I was not there to see it.