Victoria Underground line walk 1
BRIXTON to PIMLICO
1 3/4 hours
The Victoria line was built by Transport for London in the 1960s in order to alleviate congestion on existing underground lines in central London and proved very successful as it is considered to be congested as well by now. There are two good reasons for this: it is the line providing the most convenient interchange at many stations as changing to other lines is step free in a number of cases. And trains run very fast because distances between stations tend to be high.
The line was not meant to provide access to suburbs that might have been underserved until then and all stations are interchanges except for one that was added later. Looking at a map, you might argue that an opportunity was missed in several cases (New Covent Garden in Nine Elms, Clissold Park area, St Ann’s Road, Walthamstow Town Hall).
Apart from the interchange issue, the main peculiarity of the line are that it is the only longer line built fully underground (only the maintenance depot is over ground). The line is called “Victoria” because it passes Victoria train terminal. Other names had been proposed and some sound rather funny (“Viking line” or “Valvic line”).
Routing note: There is a train station in Brixton relatively close to the underground terminal. Although it is not really a connection, you can therefore combine the present walk with Victoria train network walks 7 or 8.
This route connects in Stockwell with Northern Line walk 12 and in Vauxhall with Waterloo walk 1. It connects in Pimlico with Victoria Underground line walk 2.
The station opened in 1971 when the full Victoria line was completed. It is one of the busiest stations on the whole network.
The station has a rather sizeable frontage on Brixton Road with a wide glass façade. At the time, unadorned concrete was still the material of choice (for example at the Barbican), so that a glass front was quite modern and innovative. We are a bit fed up with the style nowadays because all office buildings are built in this manner, but it was not the case at the time.
Exit the station on Brixton Road and turn L for a short cultural detour until you reach the town hall overlooking the main crossroads.
This is actually the town hall for the borough of Lambeth. The name sounds surprising but was more historical and the old town hall was actually located closer to old Lambeth. The present building dates back to 1908 and is a typical example of Edwardian bombast. It is described as “neo-baroque” because of the scrolls around the oculi (the round windows) of the rotunda. The tower is a landmark and was rare for a town hall at the time. The balustrade on both sides hides the third floor because there was originally an inclined roof rather than a third floor.
Just opposite the town hall, there is a tall freestanding monument with a giant palmetto at the top. This is a funeral monument from 1825 in the neo-greek style – anything greek was the height of fashion and Lord Byron would soon dash into the Greek guerilla against the Turkish Ottoman regime. The location of the monument is logical because this was the upper end of the churchyard until graves had to be transferred away from inhabited areas following an Act of Parliament. The Budd family were successful stock exchange and real estate speculators – then as now, many rich people like to flaunt their newly and dubiously acquired wealth in an ostentatious manner.
Going back a few steps towards the station, you see three interesting buildings on the eastern side of the crossroads. The one closer to the town hall is the library, built with subsidies from industrialist and philanthropist Tate in 1893. The architecture is subdued neo-clacissism with the typical late Victorian colour pattern of cream and orange (actually inspired by French 17th century castles). There was a formal garden in front of the building but this was too cumbersome to maintain and was replaced by modest raised patches of grass.
The neighbouring building is a film theatre that was extended after World War II bombs destroyed a theatre that stood here. The entrance is from 1910 and is suitably imposing as theatres were major cultural venues in any town. The style is quite similar to that of the town hall, which is very thoughtful from the architect.
On the other side of the road, the film theatre faces an imposing brick rotunda with thin white stone columns. It was originally a very large pub and is now divided among flats, a pub and a fast-food restaurant using a colour scheme that is very inappropriate for the building. The present building dates back to 1935 and is an excellent example of Art Deco. It combines the vertical and the horizontal (our modern business buildings stress only the vertical), it has the rounded shapes much used at the time in conspicuous locations.
It also has very large windows that were made possible by the invention of concrete pillars bearing the structure and that were considered very sensible by the new hygienic movement as sunlight was said to be essential for good health. By the way, this interest for sunlight explains why nudism started as a movement at the same period. Sunny weather being unreliable in Britain, nudism caught less than in Germany.
Continue walking back towards the tube station. You are soon passing the white stone façade of a large apparel shop. It was built in 1935 like the pub you just saw before and is a very different type of Art Deco, stressing the vertical much more. There is not much decoration, which makes me think that it was built as a standard branch for a large corporation. The tall windows would be logical for a department store.
Before reaching the tube station again, turn R into Electric Avenue (a pedestrian area), the road turns L towards a subway under train lines
The road takes its name from the fact that it was the first shopping street to be lit by electricity back in the 1880s. There was also a canopy protecting shoppers in bad weather, a little like in Leadenhall Market, but it was taken away in the 1980s for safety reasons and was not replaced. It is now a very lively market catering to the “vibrant multinational community” Brixton is often described as.
This came to be partly by chance, as the first Caribbean immigrants to England were housed in a shelter in Clapham, came to Brixton for shopping purposes and discovered affordable houses in rundown Victorian streets. Brixton has become a symbol for immigration and featured a few times in episodes of racial tension and suburban riots in the 1980s and in 1995. Brixton is becoming more upmarket like other inner suburbs and an example of this is National Rail expelling shops from the train viaduct arcades in order to refurbish them – the result being that rents will quadruple and that the shops will not be the same and will not cater to the same clientele.
Ahead Pope’s Road passing under both train lines
There are actually two separate train lines. The lower viaduct bears the train line from London Victoria to Bromley South and has a train station. The upper viaduct only crosses the first line and has no station; it is used by the London Overground between Clapham Junction and Peckham Rye. If you want to combine the present walk with an other one, you can join here the Victoria train network walk 7 or 8.
R Canterbury Crescent
The nice brick building at the corner with Pope’s Road was originally the seat of St John’s the Divine Church of England Primary School and dates back to 1850. The school had to move because it outgrew the premises and the building was converted to luxury flats. A 3-bedroom property at this address was offered in 2014 for a modest 1,850,000 £, showing that Brixton should not be associated only with the “vibrant immigrant community” I mentioned.
Just opposite the brick building, you can notice the upper floors of a pub, painted in elegant pale yellow. The windows have alternatively pointed and rounded lintels, a typical reference to 17th century neo-classicism as defined by Italian architect Palladio. I guess such a refined building was intended to be connected with a parade of similar façades along Pope’s Road.
L Wiltshire Road (when the priority road turns R, keep on Wiltshire Road in front of you)
The road runs on the back side of Max Roach Park, which I visit on the Victoria train walk 7 mentioned above. There are several strips of green and small parks along the East side of Brixton Road between here and the corner of Loughborough Road. They were created by demolishing some of the derelict early 19th century houses along the road. Most of them were refurbished by the council in order to create subsidised housing in a particularly deprived area of London.
The three strips of greenery are united under the name Max Roach Park after a leading American jazz musician. I am a little surprised that the borough could name the park after a living person (he inaugurated the park himself in 1986 while he died only in 2007). In some European countries, this is considered a big no-no because it might induce some rich or influential people into bribing or coercing local authorities.
In the southern section of the park, you will find a grassy mound with what looks like the ruins of a substantial brick building, but this was planned by the landscape architect from the onset as a playground.
At the end of the park, you can have a look at the start of Villa Road. There is an interesting mural painted on the first of a row of renovated Victorian houses, showing the sun and stars. It is very unusual to see a mural painted directly on bricks as it is much easier to develop a design if you paint a background colour first.
The church you pass afterwards is St John’s Angell Town; the parish church for Brixton is actually near the town hall. The name of the parish comes from Mr Angell who donated the ground. The church is a normal neo-gothic building from 1853 and is normally closed except for services. It does have a rather substantial church tower with a surprising battlement at the top. The four finials are less unusual, they are inspired by a design often seen in French gothic cathedrals.
At the end L Peckford Place
The housing estate along this minor road is worth a look. It represents the more modern version replacing derelict Victorian housing. The lower level used for garages is interesting, being not so deep into the ground as to be dark and attractive for illicit activities. In addition, the strip of green with trees in the middle of the road immediately gives a more pleasant feeling.
Ahead across the small park to the main road
R Brixton Road
You pass two additional sections of Max Roach Park. They are actually just wider strips of green with a few trees, but are still more pleasant than the pavement. At the level of the second one, I noticed an interesting old building marked “Eagle Printing Works” and dated 1864. This is the type of business that made Brixton a lively suburb. My picture is several years old, the lintel with the date was taken away since. By the way, there was a hairdresser’s in the building at the time. Like many outfits in this trade, it advertised itself as “unisex”. I must say I find the wording extremely amusing knowing the reputation some male hairdressers have in the gay crowd.
L Robsart Street
There is an unusually ornate brick building at 2 Robsart Street. I have found no information about the building and it does not look very old. It shows about every type of decoration you can do with bricks.
R into Slade Gardens
The park was landscaped when the borough bought and demolished derelict Victorian housing. It opened in 1962. It is just a normal neighbourhood park with grass, a few trees and a playground. It is actually a themed playground with an amusing yellow submarine structure. I did not notice flower beds or exciting planting although the website extols orchard trees.
Exit the park near the church on the western side. St Michael’s Stockwell is an early neo-gothic structure already opened in 1841 and is rather modest.
Take either R or L in order to reach the road that runs behind the church, called Stockwell Park Crescent. There are substantial town houses in the quiet road, showing that you have really left Brixton behind you.
Towards the end of the road, you pass a small church building, the “Stockwell Spiritualist Church and Healing Centre”. Mediums offer for a modest charge “special evenings of clairvoyance”. Belief that you can communicate with spirits of deceased persons was quite popular in the late 19th century and there are many references to this in novels from the period. The name on the Continent is “spiritism”. It was discredited by some fraudsters in the 1880s (and you know what is implied when your money is “spirited away” by your investment scheme) but retains followers primarily in the United States and in Britain. As a European, I am not that surprised considering the British fascination with ghosts.
Leave the crescent into St Michael’s Road
R Stockwell Road
Just before reaching the station area, you pass a long, slick building with a rounded prow over the crossroads. This is obviously an other Art Déco building from the 1930s, stressing the horizontal this time. There is a pretty decorative band at the upper floor level depicting a swan; this refers to the fact that there was a pub here using this name. It is now a nightclub and is apparently very popular with the Irish community.
The station opened in 1890 on the Northern line and the Victoria line platforms opened in 1971. The Victoria line platforms have a themed decoration, a swan referring to the nearby pub.
The station building is a 1926 work replacing an older building. It has typically horizontal shapes and is built in dark red brick, a popular early Art Déco style comparable to the old Greenwich town hall from the same period. But it is very plain and does not have the towers often built in the 1930s as local landmarks. The reason is that it was planned just after World War I while the economy was still recovering.
With your back to the Swan nightclub, walk a few yards north along Clapham Road. You will soon reach the borough War Memorial. It is a very heavy-set column in white stone, typical for the imperial style of the 1920s.
Just behind the memorial, there is a rotunda painted with poppies. They are repainted regularly because they tend to fade from dark red to cutesy piglet pink rather quickly. I have always been surprised at the role of poppies in remembering World War I as most European countries do not use similar symbols. The rotunda was the entrance to a large bomb shelter built during World War II. Like seven other similar shelters, it was built after London citizens tried desperately to shelter in tube stations in 1940. Each had room for 8,000 refugees because they were large enough to be possibly used for tube line construction at a later point in time.
Take Lambeth Road along the memorial, leaving the rotunda on your right.
L Lansdowne Way passing a bus depot
The bus depot was an architectural achievement when it opened in 1952. It was at the time the largest unsupported roof span in Europe with a length of 59 m. Because of the large British steel industry, most public buildings included a lot of steel until the 1970s, but there was a shortage just after World War II and the roof was built in concrete. At a time when engineers had to make all calculations by hand, planning such a roof was remarkable.
Soon R Lansdowne Gardens passing a landscaped roundabout
As before in Stockwell Park Crescent, this is a very nice area with well kept early Victorian houses. Most of Lambeth and of Stockwell was a poor area and you will find many council estates along the main roads, but some areas were reasonably middle class. A bit after the roundabout, I noticed two houses painted in pastel colours. This was never done in 19th century cities because of soot from coal heating but it was popular for country mansions in the 1820s. It is still quite rare in London nowadays as it is more expensive to maintain than plain bricks and too flashy for the borough of Westminster. You do find similar colours in Primrose Hill and Notting Hill Gate.
At the end R Thorne Road
Ahead Aldebert Terrace
At the end L Albert Square
This conservation area was built as a smaller speculative development in 1851 around a central garden. This is a private garden that is only planned for decoration purposes and is not an actual park. It is a very English concept, linked to the fact that speculators were able to buy large tracts of land and do some measure of urban planning (although they did ignore completely the issue of shops and schools).
L Wilkinson Street
At the corner at the end of the street, you might notice a modern sculpture. It was commissioned by a local residents’ association, an extremely unusual occurrence at the time although they did receive a grant from a public foundation as well. The sculpture was unveiled in 1988 and shows wild vegetation. It honors John Tradescant, a botanist who travelled worldwide in search of rare plants.
The somewhat confusing building just behind the sculpture is the entrance hall to the parish church of St Stephen’s Lambeth. If the church is open, it is definitely worth a look inside. The original neo-gothic church was destroyed by accident in 1940 and the new church from 1967 is one of the most striking and unusual examples of contemporary Anglican architecture in London. The extremely austere look is not my personal taste. Note the light opening above the altar area serving as a chancel; the symbolism of light from above was ubiquitous in the 1960s.
R Bolney Street
L Dorset Road
R Meadow Road
L Rita Road, turns R
Ahead into Vauxhall Park
The park was landscaped on land that the borough was able to buy back from a speculator who had acquired the whole area. The borough did not have the funds for such a purchase, but money was put together from a number of sources under different legal budget provisions and a special Act of Parliament proved necessary in 1888. Although the park was rather plain at the beginning, it had been patronised by all sorts of influential philanthropists and was opened by a whole set of princes and princesses and by the Archbishop of Canterbury.
The park was improved after World War I and was the largest park in the then borough of Lambeth. In 1947, a retired engineer who loved building miniature houses offered to build a model village in three parks (Finsbury Park, Brockwell Park and a park in Australia). The Brockwell Park village was considered too large and the borough donated part of the buildings to Vauxhall Park in the 1950s. The houses were actually built by Edgar Wilson in 1943 and renovated in 2002. They are in excellent shape because they have been filled with sand and concrete in order to ensure stability.
Apart from the lovely model village, there is also a lavender garden and a pleasant rose pergola. Pergolas are typical for Edwardian parks but had stone pillars. Pergolas with wooden posts like this one are the contemporary version.
The buildings around the park are a motley collection of uninteresting properties except for a somewhat unusual contemporary estate along the west side. Metal arches have been stuck on the façade in a stange manner but I agree readily that it makes the long building more lively to look at.
Cross the park to the Northwest exit
R St. Lambeth Road (the main road)
You reach a very busy crossroads with the seat of the British Interplanetary Society on your right. It is an interesting organisation. It was founded in 1933 as a private club intending to test rockets. This was a serious pursuit at the time and similar societies in other countries were later integrated into official research organisations, but this did not happen in London because the law prohibited experimentation with explosive fuels by private persons. The club worked on several proposals to fly to the moon, which explains the “interplanetary” name. I thought first that it was some sort of wacky intergalactic church, but I was completely off the mark.
Cross the main road following the small white sign for the tube and train station. There are now two subways under the train lines in front of you. Take the quieter one, South Lambeth Place
The station opened in 1971 underneath the existing train station and is entirely underground.
Cross the bus station and the main road towards the river Thames
The bus station is dominated by a spectacular double structure above an aluminium core. Seen from the side, the lower part reminds of an American bus from the 1950s. The cantilevered structure has an unexpected practical purpose, it bears solar panels to produce power. It is a bit of a landmark and there were protests when the borough suggested tearing it down to improve the general layout of the area. Tourists were nearly arrested for taking a picture in 2009 as police feared a terror attack, but I suspect this is also linked to police being overzealous because of the vicinity of the secret service headquarters.
Ahead Vauxhall Bridge
The bridge is not particularly elegant. It has very flat arches built in 1906 and replaced an earlier bridge opened in 1816. Technically, it is a rather standard steel bridge because original plans to build in stone were thwarted by issues with the river bed. There was quite a lot of bickering about the costs and agreement was only found in the end for a few statues in bronze. My picture shows “science”. The only way you can see the statues is from a boat or from the riverside, which is a bit sad.
Seen from the north side of the river, the panorama of the bridge is quite striking because there are huge buildings on both sides of it. The upstream building is a gigantic pile of luxury flats. They are clearly planned to provide excellent views to the residents but it is a jumble of strangely uncoordinated shapes. It was built mostly between 2007 and 2010 and won twice an award by respected magazine “Architect’s Journal” for being “the Worst building in the world”. I agree.
The building just downstream of the bridge is an other very special building. It was built in 1995 and houses the headquarters of the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). It will not comment on the organisation itself, secret services being subject to controversies by their very nature. The building was planned by Terry Farrell, definitely one of the star architects of the late 20th century. Like his other landmark London building, the office complex above Charing Cross station, the building was planned primarily for commercial offices. Obviously, it was modified according to the security needs of the SIS.
From afar, it is to some extent a rather typical neo-classical building of that period. It is strictly symmetrical with some rounded parts that do not break the overall rectangular outline. Seen from closer and below, it is duly threatening. I felt the central rotunda with the protrusions reminded me of a crown of thorns. The side view from the bridge approach is unpleasantly angular, with vertical slabs of dark green glass looking a bit like unhealthy sandwich fillings.
The National Audit Office went through the accounts and informed the taxpayers that the cost of the building was about 135 million £. Broken down by the number of employees, this implies about 70,000 £ per employee.
L Grosvenor Road
At the beginning of the road, you walk along Bessborough Gardens. The ground belongs to the Crown Estate and the managers decided to build in a manner reminiscent of nearby Belgravia. This implies long rows of tall buildings painted cream around a park. Even if the architecture is much plainer than in Belgravia, it still exudes affluence and distinction. Architects find it boring, residents find it elegant.
The park is primarily a plain expanse of grass with trees around the edge, as in many Belgravia squares. There is a fountain in the middle that was criticised for being boringly traditional. For a public garden landscaped in the 1980s, you indeed wonder why no effort was made to find something mildly more exciting.
R St George’s Square
This square is not much fun to walk through and this is the case all over Belgravia as you are forced to walk along an endless row of strictly identical houses while the garden in the middle of the development is strictly private and not very exciting anyway. But this is a good opportunity to compare the original 19th century version with the simplified late 20th century version you saw just earlier.
R Lupus Street
The station opened in 1972 and is the only station without an interchange on the Victoria line. It was considered sensible because of nearby tourist attractions. The platforms have a themed decoration with a carpet of yellow dots, supposedly a reference to contemporary art exhibited at nearby Tate Britain.
The main entrance is a corner hall beneath an office building from the 1970s and is of no architectural interest.