London was built with Bricks - Beautiful Bricks!
London is full of tourist attractions that you 'must see'. But not my London. I've seen them. My London is streets, terraced houses, corner pubs - and bricks, bricks and more bricks. Let me show you...
A Love for Bricks - the only way to love London!
London Stocks - the finest bricks, all right Guv?
To love London, you have to love bricks. But not just any bricks. Most of London is built from London stocks, a mottled yellow, flinty-hard brick that lasts for hundreds of years. You have to touch brick walls, prayerfully, imagining the hand that laid each brick in place, for twopence an hour, all these years ago. Sometimes, you have to count bricks until you are overwhelmed. You have to wonder how many bricks make London. You have to be grateful, to the men, to their skill, and to the bricks themselves. They are London.
Bricks around London - bear with me!
For a year, I lived above this newsagent in Paul Street, East London. These were my two windows: bedroom left, lounge right. Every morning, at six a.m. I was wakened by the steel roller-shutters being opened just below my mattress (I didn't have a bed - there seemed little point in buying anything superfluous). But about the bricks: London stocks, every one, and about a hundred and thirty years old. When you walk in London, you have to keep looking up. The ground floor shop front is probably no more than twenty years old. The gold is above, just out of reach.
Introducing Soft Reds
The soft red is another great London brick. It's called a soft red because it is red, and soft! It is a beautiful red-earth colour and a perfect foil to the yellow stocks. Soft reds were used to pick out the features in an elevation. Lintels, arches, corners - these were often built in soft reds.
I've never been a fan of painted masonry. Whoever commissioned this blackavised frontage (just off Brick Lane) was probably of the 'all mouth and trousers' fraternity. You'll notice the pigeon prefers the original, and is perfectly poised to leave a deposit on the innovation. Coo - coo!
Let's get serious (about bricks)
The problem with the soft red is not the red, it's the soft. They are more like brick-sized pieces of sandstone than true fired bricks. They look perfect when young, but they age disgracefully. They are susceptible to damp penetration, airborne pollution, smoke and smog particles and anything else nature or humanity throws at them. Add to that the fact that they were often placed in the high stress (but ornamental) locations such as lintels and corners, and it's no surprise that some have failed the test of time. See (right) where a recent replacement of a worn-out soft red with a modern durable lookalike has all but destroyed the integrity of a fine old corner. Sad.
Some areas in London, instead of the more normal street-name signs, use glazed black tile-bricks with white lettering. These always give the feel of gentrification. They say, in effect, this is Henry Road, and you are privileged to be here. Keep your voices down and don't leave litter. Or maybe they just say Henry Road, NW3. It really depends on your imagination, you know, that quality that keeps you out of the shops.
The Great Fire of London
I seem to remember my primary 4 teacher (one Mrs R__mond whom I once described as rather stout because I knew very fat was rude) telling us that following the Great Fire of London, in 1666, the city installed underground water mains and fire hydrants, which they marked with yellow H-signs. The two numbers apparently refer to the pipe diameter and the distance from the yellow sign to the access point. "Following" is a great word of course. The hydrants and signs certainly followed the Great Fire, but whether by one year or one hundred is a research question. Today, I'm just walking, looking and remembering.
Everyone knows Brick Lane
- as the best street in London to find a good curry. But today my subject is bricks themselves, and the beauty, strength and tranquility of a fine brick wall. Now, Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury, I put it to you that any artist, working in oil paints, would be more than proud to create the colours of this (right) simple detail of a brick corner in London's Brick Lane. These simple 'yellow' bricks run the full gamut of blues, ochres, pinks, even hints of green, but all within the restricted palette of an early van Gogh.
If you really want to test your bricks to the limit, don't just build them into a wall. Stretch them across a canal, in a shallow arch, where they will be forever damp and stressed. But don't do it now. Start a hundred and fifty years ago. Then leave them alone to hold up your new roadway. Drive over them with carriages and wagons, later with cars, trucks, taxis, buses. Forget they are there, under the metalled tarmac. Rediscover them when you open up the fashionable waterside walkway. And look at them with wonder, and gratitude, for all they have done for your London, and mine.
Thank you for reading!
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