November 26th, 2017

The Citadel

With one corner on Horse Guards Parade and another on the Mall and a long featureless front looking down onto St James's Park- in one of the most photographed locations on Earth- is a building that is pretending not to be there. It is massive and windowless- Leviathanic, Sphinx-like- and almost entirely covered in creepers which make in green and innocent in summer but in winter not so much. We guessed at what it might be. Someone suggested a prison. But what would a prison be doing on the Mall?

My brother-in-law- who was giving us a tour of central London (it's what he does professionally and was doing yesterday as a birthday treat for Su Young) knew the answer. It's not a prison, its a fort. And what's a fort doing on the Mall? It was built in the 1940s to guard the approaches to Buckingham Palace. If the Germans had invaded it's where Churchill would have made his final stand. It would have been the epicentre and command centre for the Battle of London.

There are tunnels and safe rooms underground- still maintained- still in use. It's nice to know that if someone dropped a bomb on us the government of the UK would have somewhere to carry on its immensely important business.

What's it called? It's called The Citadel. If architectural beauty comes from form following function its a very beautiful building.

Weaving In And Out Of Whitehall

Central London has very few wide open spaces and Horse Guards Parade is one of them. It used to be Henry VIII's tilt yard; he staged tournaments there. For much of the later 20th century it served as a car park for politicians and senior civil servants- but that has been put a stop to as the abomination that it was. To the left is the imperial pomp of the Admiralty Extension- an Elgarian march in brick and stone but without the underlying melancholia and the sort of thing Kipling must have had in mind when he spoke of England seeming to be all "putty, brass and paint"- with the squat form of the 1940s Citadel crouching at the near corner- as a reminder of what warfare is really all about.

To the right are the backs of the buildings on Downing Street- where police in black uniforms linger discretely- and you have to look closely to see they are holding black weapons to their black chests- all very English and understated. Ailz noted that one of them was also holding his lunch in a black lunch-box. Straight ahead is the Horse Guards Building- 18th century- from a design by William Kent- who died before work on it began. It's pretty and Palladian and belongs to an age when soldiers wore toy-town uniforms and most of what they actually did- which wasn't so pretty- was done off-shore.

You go under the arch and out into Whitehall- which is full of people- some in movement and some forming knots in front of things they've heard about- guardsmen in their finery for instance or the entry to Downing Street- so dark on a sunny November morning it was like a cleft in a cliff- and you had to squint to make out detail in the gloom. We dodged down King Charles Street- which is lined on both sides with government offices- massive and mid-Victorian- and the people were no longer there- because this is not a place they know about- and the street sweeper had it almost all to himself. The buildings on the left belong to Philip Hammond and those on the right to Boris Johnson. Temporarily of course. Was that their voices we could hear, echoing around the inaccessible, inner courts? Probably not. At the far end there's a glimpse into St James's Park which is like the vision of a more excellent way.