As the festive season approaches, I always enjoy returning to one of my favourite Charles Dickens novels- ‘A Christmas Carol’.
During his celebrated career, Dickens wrote many Yuletide stories, including ‘A Christmas Tree’ (1850), ‘The Child’s Story’ (1852) and ‘What Christmas is as We Grow Older’ (1851).
However, A Christmas Carol; written in a matter of days and first published on the 19th December 1843, remains his seasonal masterpiece.
At its core, the tale is one of a once decent man who has gradually become corrupted by money, spurning true love in favour of a lust for all things fiscal.
This moral fairy-tale is spiced up with lashings of Christmassy imagery… and of course a bunch of persuasive ghosts, who guide the wretched miser towards a glorious redemption…
Like the vast majority of Dickens’ novels, many of the scenes featured in A Christmas Carol are planted firmly within specific London locations.
In the opening lines, the reader is told that “Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change for anything he chose to put his hand to.“
‘Change‘ in this case is a shortened nickname which Victorian Londoners gave to the ‘Royal Exchange‘ the vital hub of commerce (now converted into a luxury shopping mall) which overlooks Bank Junction.
Ebenezer Scrooge’s counting house is based right in the heart of the City on an allyway off of Cornhill, moments way from the Bank of England.
Scrooge doesn’t have to commute very far to work; his haunted house being located a short walk away at 45 Lime Street; a twisting lane linking Leadenhall and Fenchurch Street.
In the story, Scrooge’s Lime Street dwelling is described as being:
“A gloomy suite of rooms, in a lowering pile of building up a yard, where it had little business to be…
The yard was so dark that even Scrooge, who knew its every stone, was fain to grope with his hands…”
It is in this sombre location that Ebenezer Scrooge has his first taste of the hauntings that are about to follow… as the ghostly face of his long-deceased partner, Jacob Marley, briefly materializes on the door knocker.
This eerie scene was wonderfully portrayed in the famed 1951 adaptation, starring the late, great Scottish actor, Alastair Sim:
Lime Street has changed considerably since Dickensian days.
Today, it is home to the towering headquarters of Lloyds Insurance; a glistening piece of architecture which was unveiled in 1986 and has been celebrated for its ultra-modern appearance ever since…
Returning to the novel, Bob Cratchit- Scrooge’s downtrodden clerk and proud father of sickly child, Tiny Tim, lives north of the City in Camden Town.
Today of course, Camden is famed for being hip, cool and trendy; a hive of colourful markets and bustling bars.
In Dickens’ time however, Camden Town was a poverty-ridden slum.
The area towards the east of Camden- around Agar Grove– was especially notorious. In 1851, Dickens described the area as being:
“A complete bog of mud and filth with deep-cart ruts, wretched hovels, the doors blocked up with mud…the stench of a rainy morning is enough to knock down a bullock.”
Thankfully, there is another far more cheerful connection which Camden can claim to share with A Christmas Carol…
In 1992, ‘The Muppet Christmas Carol‘ was released in cinemas.
To the uninitiated, an adaptation of the classic tale starring Kermit the Frog and a host of muppets may sound rather unconventional.
However, the film actually does a terrific job of capturing the true spirit of Dickens’ original story; the melancholy, the spookiness, the redemption and joy.
And the link with Camden?
Well, not far from Camden High Street there runs a quiet, cobbled street called Oval Road.
From 1990 to 2005, Oval Road was home to the ‘Jim Henson Creature Shop‘; a studio in which countless muppets were lovingly created for an array of movies and TV shows.
It was in Camden therefore, that the huge cast of muppets featured in the following, uplifting clip were born! (Please note though; Sir Michael Caine is very much real!)
Continuing our journey through London’s numerous railway terminals, we now reach Euston; a station which has experienced its fair share of problems and controversy over the years.
Despite its current, modern appearance, Euston Station is in fact the oldest of London’s inter-city terminals, tracing its roots all the way back to 1837.
Euston takes its name from a small village in Suffolk, which dates back to at least 1086 when it was recorded in the Domesday Book as ‘Eustana’. In this peaceful village, you will find ‘Euston Hall’ which has been home to the Dukes of Grafton for hundreds of years.
In 1817, Euston Square, named after the Duke of Grafton’s seat, was built. The station followed a few years later, constructed around the same area.
The First Euston Station
Today, trains from Euston travel great distances. Some- including the overnight Caledonian Sleeper which departs late from Euston six evenings a week- run as far as Inverness in the Scottish Highlands (a far longer journey than London’s St Pancras to Paris!)
However, the original line in and out of Euston was far shorter; first envisioned as a railway linking London to Birmingham. Christened ‘The London and Birmingham Railway’, the project did exactly what it said on the tin.
The London and Birmingham Railway, along with Euston Station, was masterminded by Robert Stephenson- son of railway pioneer, George Stephenson; the genius engineer who achieved many ground-breaking railway firsts- the most notable being the construction of the world’s first passenger line between Liverpool and Manchester, which began conveying the public in 1830.
As a young man, Robert had assisted his father in such projects, and was therefore blessed with a sound knowledge of the burgeoning Victorian technology.
Planning for the railway began in the autumn of 1830; the cost of the project being estimated at £3,000,000.
When first planned, the London terminal was to be built at Chalk Farm (just outside Camden Town, and approximately 1 mile north of where the current station exists).
Some work was carried out at Chalk Farm for this purpose; in the vicinity behind what is now ‘Camden Roundhouse’ and, to this day, a siding on this site is still officially labelled as ‘The Terminus Siding’. The Roundhouse itself was built in 1847 to house a railway turntable. Today, the circular building is a popular performing arts venue.
In 1835, permission was granted to take the line a little further south. The Chalk Farm plans were abandoned, and the new terminal building was earmarked for a peaceful clearing called ‘Euston Grove’; a patch of land which belonged to Rhodes Farm. As mentioned earlier, the relatively new ‘Euston Square’ also existed in this locale.
When Euston Station first opened, it was a very simple affair with just two platforms; one for departures and one for arrivals.
In 1837, steam engines and railway tracks were still pretty much a novelty, and only six trains per day ran out to destinations as far flung as Harrow, Watford and Boxmoor (now part of Hemel Hempstead).
Blood, Sweat and Tears
Despite humble beginnings, it took just over a year for the railway’s builders to thrash out over a hundred more miles of track, reaching the ultimate destination of Birmingham and thus linking London to England’s second city which, in those days, was also one of the British Empire’s most important powerhouses.
The men who forged these routes were known as ‘Navvies’; a term originating from the word ‘navigator’, first given to the builders who had dug Britain’s canal network several decades before.
The Navvies, who came from all corners of the United Kingdom, were ferociously hard workers with a reputation for drinking as hard as they toiled.
As they built the railway, the Navvies tended to form themselves into work-gangs; groups of pals who worked, lived and drank together. These gangs camped on site, their itinerant lifestyle allowing them to follow the progression of the project on which they were employed.
Conditions were harsh to say the least.
Apart from the dangerous nature of the work (‘health and safety’ in those days being non-existent), these early railway pioneers were subjected to frequent outbreaks of cholera and typhoid; diseases which struck thanks to the unsanitary conditions in which they lived and worked.
The stressful work, hard boozing and frequent gambling resulted in many quarrels and fist-fights- some so severe that, on several occasions, the army were required to ride in and put a stop to the bad behaviour!
We don’t serve your kind here…
In the area around Camden and Euston, where extensive building work on the new railway was required, the pubs in which the men drank were segregated in order to prevent nationalistic quarrels and brawling.
The four main pubs were therefore named after castles located in each part of the UK, so each worker would know where he was welcome, and where he would find his fellow countrymen.
Today, all but one of the taverns are still going strong and are well worth a visit- and don’t worry, the jingoistic divisions are no longer enforced!
Here is a quick guide to them:
The Edinboro’ Castle
As the name suggests- even though it is curiously spelt incorrectly- this pub is where the Scottish workers came for a wee dram. The pub is perched high over the railway tracks, on the main approach into Euston. Today, the Edinboro Castle is a tempting gastro pub, especially popular during the summer thanks to its large beer garden.
The Pembroke Castle
Built for the Welsh gangers, The Pembroke Castle also backs right onto the railway line, and is a short walk from Camden Roundhouse. Today, it is well known for The Hampstead Comedy Club which hosts regular stand-up evenings.
The Warwick Castle
Sadly, this pub, which provided the English builders with ale, no longer exists. Until recently, it was known as the NW1 Bar, but is now closed and appears to be undergoing renovation (for a café apparently).
The Dublin Castle
Located on Parkway in Camden, the Dublin Castle was where the Irish navvies sank their wages. Today, this pub is a legendary music venue where, over the years, bands such as Blur, Supergrass and, most famously, quintessential London group, Madness have forged their careers.
In 1979, Madness filmed the video for their song, My Girl at the Dublin Castle (the Irish gentleman seen at the beginning of the clip is Alo Conlon. He was indeed the pub’s real landlord and was a Camden legend. Alo sadly died in 2009. You can read more about him here).
An Uphill Struggle
Nowadays (assuming there are no leaves on the line of course), London to Birmingham by train can be achieved in about 90 minutes.
However, in 1838 when the service was first initiated, London to Birmingham on an old, puffing steam train was an ordeal which took over five hours…. five hours that is, assuming the train could actually make it out of the station!
Euston lies at the bottom of a steep incline and, for the first few years of service, this proved problematic as early steam engines simply weren’t powerful enough to haul their loads up the slope.
To overcome this obstacle, trains departing Euston therefore had to be attached to a long cable which stretched some 4,370 metres, all the way up to Camden Town.
At the Camden end, the ropes were linked to and driven by a pair of large, stationary, 60-horsepower engines; a set-up which enabled north-bound trains to be literally dragged away from Euston.
Incoming trains however used the slope to their advantage; allowing gravity, and the expertise of an experienced brakeman, to roll the carriages down to the arrivals platform. This novel process continued until 1844.
Over the next few years, building and expansion continued at Euston; the station soon being transformed into a grand and celebrated London landmark.
The most famous aspect of the burgeoning terminal was the iconic ‘Doric Arch.’
The Doric Arch was erected in 1838, at a cost of £35,000; a stratospheric sum for the time. The architect of the centrepiece was Phillip Hardwick; an engineer who had also worked on Liverpool’s Albert Dock.
This extravagance was justified to shareholders in a report stating;
“The entrance to the London passenger station… opening immediately upon what will necessarily become the Grand Avenue for travelling between the Midland and Northern parts of the Kingdom, the directors thought that is should receive some embellishment.”
Other additions to the station included the ‘Great Hall’, which was opened in 1849. This huge hall, which doubled as Euston’s main concourse and waiting area, was a grand affair indeed.
Built in the Roman-Ionic style, the hall was long, wide and boasted a towering roof, standing 19 metres above the ground. On the hall’s opening day, a newspaper reported that Euston, “as a railway station, is without equal.”
Alongside this grandeur, two hotels were also added; The Euston, which was stately and expensive, and The Victoria, which was far cheaper; offering dormitory style accommodation.
Sadly, this grandiosity faded during the first half of the 20th Century.
By the 1930s, increased routes and usage had resulted in Euston becoming cramped and unfit for purpose
In response to this, the London Midland and Scottish Railway Company sought a complete rebuild of the station, and consulted Welsh architect, Percy Thomas to come up with a design. The suggested blue-print was a bold, classic affair, largely inspired by modern American architecture:
However, shortly after the design was put forward, WWII broke out and the plan was dropped, never to see fruition.
Tragedy on the Euston Line
A few years after the War, on the morning of 8th October 1952, the tracks running into Euston witnessed the worst civilian rail crash in British history.
The disaster took place at Harrow and Wealdstone Station, 15 minutes outside of Euston and one of the London terminal’s earliest destinations when first opened in the 1830s.
The accident, which took place in heavy fog, involved three trains.
A local, commuter train, was stationary at Harrow and Wealdstone when it was struck by a speeding express; the overnight sleeper train which was travelling from Perth in Scotland, to Euston. It appeared that, due to the thick fog, the sleeper train’s driver had failed to notice a signal set at danger.
Moments after the collision, a third train; another express- this one travelling from Euston to Manchester- ploughed into the steaming wreckage.
The debris from the triple crash was scattered across all six tracks and platforms. Part of the station’s footbridge was also ripped down.
Many were trapped in the tangled mess and the resulting recovery took several days. Overall, 112 people died and 340 were badly injured. 39 of the dead were Euston station employees; killed on the local commuter train as they made their way into work.
The death toll would have been even higher had it not been for the involvement of 150 American Air Force personnel. Shortly after news of the major crash was received, the Americans (based at nearby Ruislip) rushed to the scene.
The sheer level of destruction and injury resembled a battle field, leading the Americans to instinctively set up what was essentially a field hospital.
The consequent blood and plasma transfusions, conducted in improvised conditions amongst the devastation, saved many lives.
In the unit drafted in to assist, there was only one female; a 31 year old nurse from Florida called Abbie Sweetwine.
One of the only black, American women serving in the USAF at the time, Abbie administered first aid to many, as well as providing much tea and comfort. She also had the grim task of marking patient’s heads with symbols related to how severe their injuries were and if any treatment had been received. For this, she had to improvise… and used a tube of red lipstick.
So comforting was her presence, that survivors of the disaster nicknamed Abbie the ‘Angel of Platform Six.’ Several months after the disaster, she was honoured by the Royal Variety Club and given a silver cigarette case with her nickname engraved upon it.
Abbie Sweetwine can be briefly glimpsed (around the 1:10 mark) in the following newsreel from the time:
I was recently driving along ‘Parkway’; a busy road lined with bars and restaurants which ploughs through trendy Camden.
Being a Monday afternoon, it wasn’t exactly the busiest part of the day for the area, and I wasn’t really expecting a job. If truth be told, I was in fact heading towards Camley Street, a small, Camden backwater which happens to be home to a popular cabbie’s café (where a cup of will set you back a mere 60p!)
However, whilst waiting at a set of traffic lights, a woman jogged towards me, arm held aloft.
“I need to get to Earl’s Court please.”
From Camden, that’s a very good journey indeed, and I was more than happy to forfeit my cuppa!
Only problem was, we were in the middle of Camden’s complex one-way system and, in order to head in the right direction, a bit of twisting and turning along a number of small side-streets was required. Whenever I have to do this (which, unsurprisingly in London, is quite often), I often quickly explain the reason to my passenger, for fear that it looks like I’m deliberately going around the block in order to nudge the meter up!
“No problem; you’re the boss! Do what you have to do.”
The passenger was most cheerful and clearly very friendly; an energetic woman colourfully dressed in a long, purple coat and red hat.
“Have you been shopping at the markets?” I asked, turning into yet another one-way street.
“Oh no, I wish! No, I’ve been working at rehearsals.”
“Oh… are you an actress?”
“No, nothing that glamorous I’m afraid! I’m a make-up artist; been working on a sitcom for the BBC.”
Now that I’m finally out of Camden’s labyrinth one-way network and heading through the quicker, tranquil roads of Regent’s Park, I ask the passenger where exactly in Earl’s Court she’s heading for.
“Redcliffe Square, please; I’m meeting a friend there.”
I’m interested to learn a little bit more about my passenger’s experience in make-up.
“You probably get asked this all the time,” I ask, “but what shows and films have you worked on?”
“Oh, quite a lot… I’ve been doing makeup professionally for over 25 years now. I suppose my favourite job I worked on was ‘Frankenstein’; the one directed in the 1990s by Kenneth Branagh.”
I’m quite familiar with that version, mainly because the creature cobbled together from various corpses is played by Robert De Niro; a popular actor amongst cabbies thanks to his role as ‘Travis Bickle’, the troubled loner in the classic 1976 movie, ‘Taxi Driver.’
It is perhaps the most clichéd question I could possibly ask on the subject, but I can’t help but inquire;
“What was De Niro like to work with?…”
“He’s very approachable… a polite man but, when working; whilst in character, he is deeply intense.
I worked on Saving Private Ryan too; that was an interesting job. Very upsetting though.
I did make-up on the opening scene… you know; where the soldiers storm the beach and get shot at and blasted from all sides.
It made you realise what those men went through. For that scene, they used a lot of amputees; guys with arms and legs missing. False limbs were made, and then blown off; graphic stuff. That wasn’t filmed in France though; they did it on a beach over in Ireland.”
“Do you get to travel much with your job then?” I ask.
“Quite a lot yes. I don’t mean to sound ungrateful; I know how lucky I am, but it can get pretty tiring sometimes; especially when you’re stuck in an open field for 12 hours in the freezing rain, it doesn’t feel that glamorous!
I did another film though with Kenneth Branagh; ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ and that was wonderful… got to spend lots of time in the Mediterranean sunshine; a real treat!”
By now, we’ve hit the inevitable traffic. I apologise for the hitch, and start to wind through a number of twisting shortcuts.
“Oh, don’t worry about it” my passenger reassures me.
“I grew up in London; I know what the roads are like around here.
When I was younger, I used to drive around town all the time. It was so much easier back then; traffic didn’t seem quite as bad, you could park a lot easier. No cameras watching your every move- that’s the worst thing, isn’t it? You know the ‘Ritz’ Hotel; where they have that covered walkway outside?”
I do indeed know it. The passenger is referring to a fancy pedestrian walkway; a colonnade sheltered by a long, fancy roof. It runs along the front of the famous hotel; the windows and blue-coated doormen offering a tantalising glimpse into the luxury which lies within.
“Well, I was just a kid at the time; only about 19. I’d just passed my driving test, and I became the proud owner of an old Mini.
I went all around London in it and, early one Sunday morning, I drove through the Ritz’s walkway! Ha ha! It was like something out of the ‘Italian Job’! You’d never get away with that now would you; the CCTV would catch you out like a shot!”
The image which this conjures up in my mind makes me laugh so much that I nearly have to pull the taxi over! The make-up artist laughs too, amused at the impact her tale of juvenile anarchy has on me.
“I bet you’ll never be able to look at the Ritz in quite the same way again now, will you?!”
Usually, I’d take such a story with a pinch of salt, but the passenger is certainly eccentric enough to have committed such a reckless stunt!
As we drive on, I’m reminded of a film; revolutionary in its make-up and special effects which was filmed in the very square to which we are headed.
“Going back to movie make-up,” I say, “do you know the film, ‘An American Werewolf in London’?”
“Ohh, of course I do… it was the very first film I worked on!”
“You’re kidding? Did you know that they actually filmed that on Redcliffe Square?!”
“I do indeed… “
She pauses and looks out of the window briefly, clearly remembering, and then smiles to herself.
“Didn’t really think about it until you mentioned it, but I’m returning to where my career started aren’t I?”
To those unaware, ‘An American Werewolf in London’ is a film which has steadily gained the status of cult classic.
Released in 1981, the movie tells the story of two young, American friends; David and Jack who, as the story begins, are backpacking across the windswept, Yorkshire Moors.
Seeking a hot meal and a cup of tea, the pair come across a rather sinister pub called ‘The Slaughtered Lamb’.
(London has its very own ‘Slaughtered Lamb’ pub, named in homage to its famous movie namesake. It can be found on Great Sutton Street in Clerkenwell, and has a great music venue downstairs).
After being made to feel rather unsettled by the somewhat sinister, cagey locals, the two Americans leave the pub and resume their hike across the moors…
However, shortly after leaving the pub and as night sets in, the pair are attacked by a large and wild, vicious beast. Jack is killed instantly but David, who is severely injured, survives and slips into a coma.
When he awakes several weeks later, David finds himself lying in a London hospital bed.
The authorities tell him that he and Jack were ambushed by a crazed lunatic, but David knows better and insists that the attacker was a creature; a werewolf. Naturally, his bizarre recollections are brushed off as a symptom of the trauma through which he has been.
After being discharged from medical care, David is invited home by a young nurse; Alex Price (played by Jenny Agutter) who has rather fallen in love with the young American. Her flat is on Redcliffe Square, near Earls Court.
As he recuperates, David is haunted by gruesome nightmares and visions of his dead friend, Jack. Every time Jack appears- including a haunting in the Redcliffe Square apartment- he appears to be in an advanced state of decay. He warns David that, as he has been clawed by a werewolf, he is destined to become one himself.
Sure enough, on the full moon, and whilst Alex is on night-duty at the hospital, David undergoes a startling and painful transformation… Never before has Redcliffe Square witnessed something so terrifying!
Following the metamorphosis, David- in werewolf form- proceeds to go on a midnight rampage across London; feasting on a number of hapless victims.
In one of the film’s most famous scenes, the beast finds its way into Tottenham Court Road tube station and chases a late-night commuter along the eerily deserted walkways before cornering him on an escalator…
The following morning, David has returned to his human form. Despite waking up in the unusual location of London Zoo, he has no memory of his violent antics from the night before… and it takes a talkative London cabbie to make him realise what his nocturnal self has become!
(I must say, I wish I could drive from Earl’s Court to Trafalgar Square that quickly; it would do wonders for my blood pressure!)
After failing to get the police or authorities to take him seriously, David is forced to roam the streets of London and, as night falls, he finds himself in the ‘Eros Cinema’ on Piccadilly Circus.
(The Eros was a cinema which used to screen films of a more adult nature. Back in 1981, the area around Soho and Piccadilly Circus was notorious for its seediness and attractions of a more red-lit nature. The Eros closed in 1985, and has since been replaced by a far more clean-cut Gap clothing store).
Being a full moon, David once again warps into a werewolf. Bursting out of the grubby cinema, he proceeds to cause havoc in the West End, as the following clip demonstrates (Warning! Some if it’s a bit gory!)
For this amazing sequence, director John Landis was granted permission to completely close Piccadilly Circus off to the public for a night-time shoot.
All of the people you can see are actors, all of the vehicles carefully choreographed. The only other film to have been granted this amount of access to this famous London landmark was the more recent Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
When the American Werewolf in London scene was being prepared, the film crew had to do a sweep of the area, making sure all entrance points were closed, and no members of the public were around to stumble upon the carefully organised set.
There is a story (probably an urban legend, but fun all the same!) that an elderly homeless fellow, tucked away and fast asleep in an alleyway was missed by these roaming checks.
A few hours later, when he awoke, the filming was well underway; complete with crashing cars, screaming actors and a marauding, animatronic werewolf… needless to say, the elderly tramp received quite a shock!
* * *
“I was 16 years old when I got that job” continues the make-up artist. “Gosh, I was a precocious kid; a little snot really! I just went up to them and asked them to take me on. I practically insisted.
But you could do that in those days- it was certainly a lot easier to get into that business than it is today. Nowadays, you have to go through all sorts of hoop-jumping; lots of expensive courses and training.
On the American Werewolf set, I was just a tea girl; they had me running all over the place. I got to see things though; I picked up lots of knowledge on set.
I remember seeing one of the werewolf models; it was on a sort of see-saw contraption, and I got to move that up and down a bit.. quite primitive really, but then I still think models and puppets like that are miles better than the computer animation they use today, don’t you agree? You can’t beat having something solid in front of you; you know; something that actually exists. I learnt a lot on that job, and I’ll always be grateful to them.”
We finally arrive at Redcliffe Square and the friendly make-up artist bids me a cheerful farewell, leaving a generous tip in the process.
Putting the cab in gear, I drive off, turn the corner, and drive past the apartment where a team of talented make-up artists worked their magic all those years ago.