Inventive Vents Sunday London Ride - October 2021
A dozen or so of us all successfully managed to find our way to the revised start location of Liverpool Street station - a necessary change due to the Royal Parks Half Marathon happening on the same day which prevented us getting to our usual start point at Hyde Park Corner. This did have some benefits later in the ride though when we needed the 'facilities'. Greetings exchanged, bikes examined, news updated, and then we were off.
Our leader Jenny on her yellow Brompton was joined by four or five other Brompton riders, including one bright shiny red one getting its first ride out. There were road bikes, hybrids and most unusually there was a Priest bike, in glorious glossy black. Just as there was variety in the bikes, there was variety in the riders too. As it should be and almost always is for a Fridays social ride.
We started off by venturing south of the river, making use of the new CS4 and Southwark Park to get to our first vent. This was the Jubilee Line Extension ventilation shaft built in 1992, just over the road from the Rotherhithe tunnel. A dramatic sculptural piece, with a very practical use. The ‘gentlemen of a certain age’ amongst the group also made a mental note that there were toilets tucked away here too - always handy when you’re cycling in London.
And then we headed over to Camberwell via quiet streets and byways for one of the highlights of the tour, the Camberwell ’submarine’. This was built in 1970 as part of an underground boiler room and heating system for the Myatt's Field housing estates and is regarded as one of a kind due to its dimensions and design. Some people thought it was a ventilation shaft for the tube (even though the nearest line is a mile and a half away), while others suspected it could be some forgotten defence relic from the Cold War era. Either way, it was impressive.
After the ‘Fridays photographic society’ had explored every angle, we set off again enduring a few minutes of light drizzle as we rode round the Oval cricket ground, stopping to hear about vents servicing the Oval tube station and the Metropolitan Police's Lambeth Central Communications Command Centre, before crossing the river again and arriving at the Paolozzi Vent in Pimlico. Sir Eduardo Paolozzi designed this metal clad shaft in 1982, and it is now a listed landmark ventilating the car park below. The shaft is very sculptural and features mechanistic detailing - often described by the children who see it as looking like a 'robot'
From here we were mixing it with the aftermath of the half marathon, which had a side benefit of allowing us to stop for a comfort break at the event toilets before we headed across the front of Buckingham Palace on our way to Wellington Arch, and then up the Mall to the Police Memorial, both of which you’ll be surprised to know are also vents.
By this time, we’d dried out from the earlier drizzle and were weaving our way through the West End tourists to see the Leicester Square ticket office (also a vent) before heading back to the quieter City of London and London’s newest square - Paternoster Square.
There were rich picking in Paternoster. Firstly there was the Paternoster Vents, also known as Angel's Wings - a stainless steel sculpture from 2002 by Thomas Heatherwick, which provides cooling for an underground electricity substation next to St. Paul’s Cathedral. And also the central feature of the square itself, the The Paternoster Column, which is in the Corinthian style, made of Portland stone, acting as both a vent for the underground car park and a memorial to the fires caused by The Blitz and the Great Fire of 1666. And as a bonus, those ‘gentlemen of a certain age’ were able to note another well-hidden public toilet for future use.
On we went, heading in the general direction of our start point, lingering for while outside the Royal Exchange to admire two vents hidden in the plinths of statues of James Greathead and the Duke of Wellington, no less.
Group photos were taken in front of the splendid Fibonacci Spiral Vent in the Barbican. Dating from 1970, this curious structure is shaped like a Fibonacci spiral and made entirely out of tooled concrete. It’s an impressive three metres high where the air funnel is and then gradually gets lower as it unwinds and turns into a straight wall along Silk Street.
And finally we arrived at Finsbury Circus to admire Dance's Obelisk, which was to be our end point. Although it looks to be built of solid Portland stone, it is in fact one of several hollow ventilation shafts erected in the aftermath of the Kings Cross Tube Station Fire disaster in 1987. This one was intended to carry potentially flammable fumes away from an underground gas storage facility.
A memorable morning on the bike discovering new things, with good friends. I spend a lot of time walking and riding in the Great Wen and I learn something new every time. As Samuel Johnson said “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”
Well led Jenny!
Footnote: If you'd like to know more about London's vents then you can find much more information in the Inventive Vents book produced by the Our Hut project, some of which was used in the research for this ride.
Photo credits: Ross Chestney