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The History of the Building That Doesn’t Exist

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On the Albert Embankment, on the south bank of the Thames, sits one of the most striking buildings in the London landscape and one that does not, strictly speaking, exist. The headquarters of the Secret Intelligence Service, otherwise known as MI6, is a dramatic presence as part of the London skyline, and even more so in the history of the British Secret Service.

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The building that doesn’t exist – London’s headquarters of the Secret Intelligence Service

 

This building is a relatively recent development for a service that has existed to protect the British interest from domestic and international threats to security for hundreds of years. Many a great tale of derring-do and secret shenanigans have taken place at the behest of the agents working within this vault-like building, most of which are beyond our wildest imagining.

 

The name’s 6. MI6

One of the most famous fictional inhabitants of the Secret Intelligence Service building in Vauxhall is Sir Ian Fleming’s suave spy James Bond. The building featured prominently in the most recent Bond film, Skyfall. We see Dame Judi Dench as M standing on Vauxhall Bridge watching the core of the building go up in flames as the result of a cyber-attack by terrorists.

It’s not the first time the building has seen cinematic action, either. With Pierce Brosnan’s Bond, the dramatic frontage facing the Thames featured in all three films and made something of a mockery of the building’s official secret status.

As headquarters of the Secret Intelligence Service, the fictional attack carried out by the terrorist Raoul Silva in Skyfall was not the only time the building has come under attack. As recently as 2000, Northern Irish Republican terrorists carried out an attack using a rocket propelled anti-tank grenade. Thankfully, the assault only caused superficial damage and there is no sign of the attack on the structure you see today.

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The building as seen from Vauxhall Cross is no less impressive

 

History of the Home of Secret Intelligence

The current headquarters of Britain’s secret service is a relatively recent addition to the London cityscape. In the place where this grand building now stands there was once a gin distillery and a glass factory, amongst a number of other industrial units.

Purchased in the late 1980s, the site began redevelopment in the early 90s. At the time of the site’s acquisition, the Government paid for the land outright to preserve the secrecy of the operations that would go on there at a time in the immediate post-Cold War period when the existence of the Secret Intelligence Service was not officially acknowledged. When building started on the site, the contractors were unaware of the ultimate occupiers of the building; such was the secrecy that surrounded the project.

The design of the building is very much in keeping with others along the banks of the Thames and echoes the 1930s architecture of Battersea Power Station to the West and the former Bankside Power Station that is now the Tate Modern gallery. Others have likened the structure to the Mayan pyramid architecture or even the Iraqi ziggurats with their square linear dimensions and imposing façades.

 

Conclusion

One of the most striking buildings on the Thames embankment now has a formal place in London’s architectural landscape. Formally acknowledged as part of the Government establishment, the Secret Intelligence Service now has a web presence and a building that it can publicly claim as its own.

However, this comes considerably after the construction of the imposing headquarters and its feature role in a number of hugely successful films, making the base of MI6 one of the worst kept secrets in London’s history.

 

 

Image Credits: Wikipedia 1 & 2

Of Gherkins and Shards

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The high-rise skyline of London has (amongst the homogenous mass) a number of interesting and unique skyscrapers that set themselves out from the rest. The development of the urban landscape in London tells a tale of the poverty and prosperity of the city at different times during the course of its history. It also shows some of the artistry and innovation of its architects, and the visionary nature of its planners, in creating a striking impression.

From the brand new Shard to the BT Tower, a number of unusual structures have taken their place in the London skyline and the international consciousness as quintessentially London and thoroughly British.

 

The Shard

The most recent addition to the London skyline, the Shard has caused something of a stir amongst the architectural community and in the public at large. The tallest building in London, and one of the tallest in Europe, the skyscraper tops out at 306 metres and reaches higher than even some helicopters get on their trips around the city.

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The Shard at its official opening in July 2012

Renzo Piano, the architect of the magnificent building, coined its name from his description of the design as being “like a shard of glass through the heart of historic London.” True to its name, the Shard has a huge amount of glass in its construction and as Piano intended, reflects light back down onto the city below and changes the appearance of the tower depending on the weather and the sky above it.

The building has a viewing platform at the top that gives panoramic views of the city that can only be beaten by taking to the air. From the air, however, you can also get a unique perspective on the tower that dwarfs all buildings around it by a vast margin.

 

The Gherkin

30 St Mary Axe, as the City of London’s Gherkin is formally known, is the most eye-catching skyscraper in the city’s financial district. Informally named the Gherkin for its unusual elliptical shape, the tower was built on the site of a terrorist explosion that caused significant damage to the building that previously stood in its place.

The Gherkin has become a landmark of the city skyline and has featured in many films. From Harry Potter to Woody Allen, the tower has played a supporting role with some of the most well-known characters of recent cinema history.

 

The BT Tower

Formerly known as the Post Office Tower, this was the first structure to eclipse St Paul’s Cathedral for height in London’s cityscape. For a while, it stood as the tallest building in both London and the UK, titles it held until 1980 when the building boom saw the NatWest Tower become the first of many to overtake it in terms of stature.

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The BT Tower – officially a secret until 1993

An unusual, top heavy structure, the BT Tower is very much of its time. When it was constructed in the 1960s it was intended very much as a communications hub for the south of England. Although the tower had a public opening, and its restaurant was owned and run by one of the country’s most popular leisure companies of its era, the existence of the tower was officially a secret. In fact its location wasn’t included on Ordinance Survey Maps until the confirmation of its location in Parliament in the mid-1990s.

 

Conclusion

The development of the London city skyline has had an interesting and varied heritage. From terrorist bombs and official secrets to the tallest tower in the European Union, London’s cityscape has been shaped by the tall buildings that have emerged to dominate its vistas.

 

 

Image Credits: Wikipedia 1 and 2

Lose Yourself in London’s Camden Town

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Camden Town, one of the hippest and most vibrant parts of London, is a thriving hub of culture, creativity and independent shopping. It has a fantastic, sprawling market which has something for just about everyone and you can pick up a unique gift or something special for yourself to take home to remember your trip to the city.

From above, Camden is second only to Oxford Circus in terms of the sheer volume of people, both locals and visitors, who flock there at the weekend. The market at Camden Lock is a huge draw for those who want to browse, buy and mingle to soak up the local flavour.

 

Shopping in Camden

Camden Lock is a working lock that sees the passage of narrow boats up and down the Regent’s Canal. The Lock is, however, much more well-known for the market that sits alongside it. The market spills in and out of former warehouses that would have served as storage space for the goods travelling up and down the canal when the waterways were used for more than just leisure.

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Camden’s bohemian Stables Market, selling everything from ankle bracelets to zebra print throws

 

With a wide range of stalls selling everything from incense sticks to mobile phone covers, it has a whole host of independent vendors from whom you can pick up a bargain. Wander into the Stables Market, former home to the horses for Pickford’s Haulage before carriages were powered by engines, and you’ll find a different bunch of things to see and buy. Antique furniture and home décor rubs shoulders with vintage clothes and accessories in the dimly lit archways where the horses once spent their nights. Whole stables full of vintage fur coats, luggage and steamer trunks with the original shipping tags and costume jewellery from the time when going “up West” would have meant a trip to the music halls are all for sale at a negotiable price.

You won’t find any chain stores or big brands in the whole of Camden Town, so whatever you choose to buy when you’re in the area, you’re guaranteed to have something that’s unique and personal to remind you of your trip.

 

Eating, drinking and entertainment

Camden has more than its fair share of bars, restaurants and cafes that cater to every taste. If you’re looking for something quick and fresh, there’s an open-air food court with stall-holders offering everything from Ethiopian coffee to Polish Pierogi for a fraction of the cost of the main bars and restaurants.

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Camden Lock is a vibrant and colourful place to visit

 

If it’s a chilly day and you’d rather stay under cover, try one of the pubs and bars that overlook the canal and enjoy a break from the hustle and bustle as you watch the world go by. The Lockside Lounge and the Ice Wharf both have indoor and outside seating to let you take advantage of a drink while immersing yourself in the Camden atmosphere.

For entertainment, Camden’s nightlife is second to none. With venues catering for every style of music, comedy and performance, you won’t go short of things to entertain you in the Town. Some of London’s most famous music venues, such as the Electric Ballroom and Camden institution, The Barfly, have a whole host of live events every night of the week with a varied programme of acts to choose from.

 

Conclusion

Camden Town is a thriving, exciting place to visit on any trip to London. The markets have more than enough of interest to tempt even the most resistant shopper and with a host of bars and restaurants, there is literally something to suit every taste.

 

 

Image Credits: HerryLawford and Wikipedia

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