A London Journey

A London Journey

King’s Cross station to UCL, via Cartwright Gardens and Tavistock Square through the eyes of Charlotte Palmer

On any given morning, the uninitiated must look down more than they look up while walking down the Euston Road. It’s necessary, in order to dodge ghost-stains of spilled drinks or vomit, wet bird excrement or a dazed-looking pigeon with one claw. You don’t dare meet the air, pungent and arid with cigarette smoke and traffic fumes and greasy food and something else that might simply be an imagined, hypochondriac smell-hallucination of dirt and pollution, of what breathing in this atmosphere is doing to your lungs.

By the time you reach the lecture theatre your hands are more wrinkled and immobile than if you had just battled through frost and snow, and it is initially difficult to speak, the heavy, grainy air having transferred itself to the lining of your oesophagus. No one who lives in central London escapes the stygian scourge of black snot, but I feel that if I could see my throat right now it would be much the same colour.

But I got used to it, because I had to if I wanted to stay sane, and when I decided to look up from the treacherous pavement, on the side of the road opposite from King’s Cross Station, I see the St Pancras Hotel, which is as far as you can get from ‘down’ as possible. It reaches up into the heavens, its hard terracotta angles cut out boldly against a blue sky, or smokily, mysteriously against a cloudy one. Its squat neighbour also looks proud – but a different kind of proud, one that looks forward instead of back. The British Library is the antithesis to that epitome of Victorian glory; it looks like our buildings 1,000 years from now, and when you’re inside its central square it exudes a weird kind of utopian calm.

Gazing across the road, it eventually becomes easy to forget that the road is actually there and serves a purpose. Sometimes, all it seems to do is provide fitting background noise for the struggle that’s happening on the pavement, which is home to everyone: the sad, mad, rich, poor, homeless, shifty, impatient, and those who are downright drunk at 10am. It’s rare that you see anyone smile, because it’s early, and it smells, and it’s noisy, and everyone is trying to get out of everyone’s way, apart from the people that think it’s appropriate to stop in the middle of the path – of which there is a multitude. The incessant horns exacerbate people’s already palpable frustration and early-morning rude awakenings, the shudder of buses and purring of almost stationary engines setting everyone on edge that little bit more, quickening our pace and heartbeats. The sirens you stop noticing after a while because if you didn’t you’d realize that they are all too terrifyingly, nonchalantly frequent and that everything around you is part of or a personification of that noise, that tense, feverish sound.

Sometimes I want to linger on the Euston Road, sometimes I don’t. It’s too much the present. Sometimes I love that and rush towards it and sometimes I don’t and I flee. Let’s say for the sake of a longer and more varied essay that I escape, because that route to UCL is much more winding and makes an interesting contrast to the polluted mayhem of Euston. So after fighting my way through another throng of middle-aged male day-drinkers I see the sign for JUDD STREET, a quieter side road, and I fly towards it gratefully. Once, I missed the street and turned down Mableton Place instead, and I found myself in Cartwright Gardens. I was surprised at how quickly a hush fell. I love that kind of sudden variety: there’s no gradation in these contrasts, from loud to silent, gothic to postmodern, grimy to genteel – it just happens. Suddenly the hard metal colours of Euston melt, if such a solid crowd of cars, lorries, bricks, could do something as sleek and as fluid.

I went past a crescent of tall, neat Victorian houses on one side and a tennis court within a private square on the other. Part of the crescent is a row of hotels which occupy one house each. They’re prettyish and cheapish, the kind where there are always large groups of young tourists outside with suitcases and cigarettes. For some slightly voyeuristic reason I find these chains of hotels, of which there are many around Bloomsbury, fascinating: behind every glass door you glimpse a still and silent lobby scene with the same components as the next, only arranged or coloured differently: a carpeted staircase in a sombre colour, with a diamond, stripe or fleur de lis pattern; a fringed lamp that is always on, even in broad daylight, on a shiny brown table. This kind of repetition is uncanny as well as amusing; do these places all swap décor tips or are they rabidly competitive, spying on each other by night? Most of the hotels look as if they’ve been there for decades, their names still spelled out on their signs in unromantic neon or slightly soiled block letters. As I get back on course and walk down Tavistock Place there’s another one of these rows, in view as I cross Marchmont Street.

Once I approach Tavistock Square, I see the corner of my destination, Malet Place. At this point everything becomes so much more familiar and less novel; I came down here every week in my first year. It’s all suddenly less potent and more faded and nostalgic. Memories layer my surroundings, multiple recollections of the same mundane events – walking to Bedford Way in the rain, in the sun, in the biting cold – to the singular ones: my first day at university when I sat in Tavistock Square and ate my lunch alone which seemed like proof of my immediate assumption that I’d make no friends), feeling empty and resigned – to an unknown but most probably a lamely, undramatically sad fate.

I keep going, past the square on my right-hand side, trees dancing in the wind, and turn down into Malet Place and suddenly the trickle of students which has been increasing from Byng Place onwards becomes an onslaught and I go to join it.

Featured image credit: Stephen McKayFrom geograph.org.uk

Charlotte Palmer