You think that you know Great Britain?

It easy for people who don’t live here (and even for some of us who do) to think that everything in Britain is old. We’re famous for old buildings and traditions but huge construction projects such as the London Olympics are helping to show us in a new light.

Throughout much of the mid-late 20th Century much of Britain appeared tired and run-down but recently this has changed and now an age of renewal and improvement is with us.

Perhaps uniquely Britain suffered from 3 or 4 inter-related problems that for a while put us at a disadvantage, some of these problems still exist but can be overcome with clever design so that the problems become advantages.

One of the reason we have had an old infrastructure is that our forebears The Victorians often did things first and did them extremely well. Yes London Underground may be crowded but it is also huge, busy and efficient with some of it being 150 years old when possibilities then were less than they are now. Over the years technology may have advanced but who wants to spend a lot of money revamping something for just a small improvement albeit an ever increasing improvement.

Related to this is that we have so much history and old stuff. It’s much easier to build a new transportation network or whole city in China or the Gulf States when you’re essentially building on a blank canvas. People like the old things in Britain, if they wanted shiny and new everywhere they’d go to Dubai or Las Vegas. Knocking down historic buildings is generally a total no-no and even if you can build above the ground, what about the centuries of pipes, tunnels and cabling underneath it?

The country was also all but bankrupt and ruined by war and bombings. Every penny was needed to rebuild houses and roads, everything else was not a priority which is why some places such as London Heathrow now operate at 99.8% capacity. Finally and what compounded the problems was the new phenomenon of Global Trade and the possibility of doing things a lot cheaper by making, mining or buying them from abroad which resulted in huge areas of towns, cities and areas just being a derelict eyesore. If Britain was once the workshop of the world, then cheaper outsourcing to Asian economies meant we had further to fall than anyone else.

If you look around the place now though, it is almost unrecognisable to what it was like 10 or 20 years ago and starting with the Channel Tunnel that now links us under the sea with France all manner of impressive buildings and construction sites have come to fruition.

One of the first was the London Dockyards which until the 1980’s was an urban wasteland which is now transformed and a rival to the City of London itself.

The London Docklands

Skyscrapers, marinas and robotic like driver-less trains make it seem like a mini New-York and definitely not England.

Canary Wharf entrance

This new station at Canary Wharf bears no resemblance to older tube stations.

I got both this photo above and the one below from the fantastic blog set up to celebrate 150 years of London Underground. My first impression when I went to ‘the docklands” was that it resembles a space port and so was happy to see the original caption of “Warf Factor 3 Mr Sulu”.

Inside Canary Wharf station

Mind the gap – this platform area is the size of 2 football pitches and 6 storeys high all underground.

London is undergoing huge infrastructure investment with the massive Crossrail underground link project being the biggest in Europe. Huge new super-sewers are also being installed to supplement the Victorian era sewers. What it undeniably needs though is a new super-airport to replace or supplement its existing 4 international airports.

Visitors to London have for most of the last decade had to put up with delays and bus replacement schemes on London Underground as everything is renewed from the “under”ground up but when you see a new stations such as the one at Westminster, right under Big Ben it has to be worth the ‘temporary’ inconvenience.

Westminster Station

Underground station or Bond villain lair. It’s easy to imagine James Bond or John McClain sorting out some baddies here.

Britain is not famous for its sky scrapers and that is because there are strict rules on where they can be placed. Until the 1980’s there were barely any and even though they are now going up at an exponential rate their location is strictly controlled due to our crowded air space but also due to something known as “protected views”. This means for example a building is constructed, it must not impinge upon classic views of somewhere like St Pauls Cathedral. So we have corridors where nothing tall can be built to allow tourists and locals alike the architectural pleasures we have always loved.

Sometimes buildings can be demolished except for the outer shell and so on the inside everything is super-modern and yet on the outside it looks exactly the same as it always did. St. Pancras Station in London is a good example of this.

St Pancras Railway Station Exterior

One the outside it looks every bit a Victorian neo-gothic building, a tourist site on its own merit.

St Pancras was due to be demolished but was saved after the terrible destruction of notable features of the old and nearby Euston Station which like Kings Cross station were largely remoulded into awful 60’s concrete buildings.

St Pancras Interior

A worthy addition to the old train station – an international rail terminal

St. Pancras is one of the most beautiful train stations imaginable with its traditional services on the ground level and now international trains to Europe on the top level all under the glass and iron roof. Many people say it puts the romance back into train travel.

To overcome resistance to skyscrapers it has been decreed that only the very best designs will be allowed which means that those built in city centres have to be interesting to look at and not just a rectangular block. London is increasingly full of them such as this below:

The Gherkin Building

The Gherkin Building or more properly known as 30 St. Mary Axe

Luckily we have one of the worlds top architects in Sir Norman Foster who spent his career building around the world but now we don’t have to travel far to see his designs.

The Shard

The Shard, Europe’s Tallest Building

The Shard is just south of the River Thames in a part of London tourists don’t generally visit, to the right of the river just out of view is The Tower of London and behind the camera is Tower Bridge. The bottom most building by the river is the home of the London Mayor Boris Johnson and in the distance you can just make out the London Eye and Big Ben.

It’s not just London that is booming, this new skyscraper below in Manchester has a rather brutalist design supposedly to represent the honest, no-nonsense and hard working ethics of Northern England.

Beetham Tower

One of many new building developments in once ‘deprived cities’.

Most British cities are now unrecognisable from how they were atleast in the 1980’s. Each city had its own motivating factor towards re-development. One of the key moments for Manchester was the IRA bomb which devastated a large area of shopping centre of the city.

Manchester bomb damage

In 1996 an IRA bomb ripped through central Manchester.

Manchester bomb damage

The city leaders took the bomb devastation to renew and improve the city.

Like many other cities Manchester now has revamped squares and parks, new public transportation systems and is a forward looking city now home to Media City below.

Media City Salford

Media City in Salford, home to a booming television, film and multi-media business

My home city of Newcastle Upon Tyne was once one of the poorest and deprived city in Western Europe but like many areas its former industrial ports and waterways have been transformed.

Newcastle Quayside

A thoroughly modern landscape

The Quayside in Newcastle is a great example of urban and industrial regeneration where old shipyards, disused docks and warehouses have been replaced with designs that compliment the existing traditional buildings. Old industrial areas are now attractive outdoors locations with cycle paths and pedestrianised precincts for jogging, skating outdoor music and arts events all lined with cafes and restaurants. Above you see the new winking bridge and the magnificent music centre and just out of show the Baltic Gallery is a former flour mill which has been transformed into fantastic art gallery.

Second Severn Crossing

An additional and new crossing from England into Wales

The second Severn Crossing is 3.19 miles (5km) long and is the southern most crossing from England into Wales as it crosses the wide River Severn. Surely a structure that Victorian engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel would be proud of.

There are still many major challenges ahead, the requirement for a huge and purpose built new London airport whether on land or a floating island as has been put forward. With a rising population, congestion is a continual problem and there still remains some old infrastructure such as train lines that remain to be modernised. However once overcome we will undoubtedly have a better, cleaner and happier place to live and visit.

HS2 map

Newly released details of the second High Speed rail line in England

This week the route of the second phase of Britains second Highspeed Rail route has been released. It has faced opposition from people stating it costs too much, is a waste of money or could destroy precious countryside. All of this could be true but I believe that we should progress with such projects. No-one ever looks at the Japanese bullet trains or German Autobahns and says they are a waste of money. I can’t think of a single historic part of Britain that wasn’t worth building despite the cost or temporary upheaval and they would have had the same questions and problems we have today only we have better potential to overcome concerns due to modern technology.

This train line will not be complete for 20 years but has the potential to ease congestion, save a lot of travel time and make us all better connected both within Britain and with Europe. With a train journey to and from London being similar to a flight, who is going to bother flying? That has to be good for the environment amongst other things.

150 years or so ago some of us despised new Victorian structures, they thought they were ugly, that they ruined the natural beauty of the land and even that they were the work of the Devil. Now though people pay money just to travel on Victorian train lines to marvel at bridges that most of us today think compliment the countryside such as this viaduct on the Settle-Carlisle line.

Arten Gill Viaduct

Eye-sore or thing of beauty? A highlight of the Victorian Carlisle – Settle train line still in use today.

Next time you think of Britain and imagine we all live in quaint old houses and live in a strange nostalgic world of Shakespeare, Kings and Queens and picturesque villages, think again or better still come and see things for yourself and see 7 of the biggest 100 construction projects in the world in between that tea and scones or photo opportunity outside Buckingham Palace. We’re looking forward and not just to the past.

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About Stephen Liddell

I am a writer and traveller with a penchant for history and getting off the beaten track. With several books to my name including a #1 seller, I also write environmental, travel and history articles for magazines as well as freelance work. Recently I've appeared on BBC Radio and Bloomberg TV and am waiting on the filming of a ghost story on British TV. I run my own private UK tours company (Ye Olde England Tours) with small, private and totally customisable guided tours run by myself!
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7 Responses to You think that you know Great Britain?

  1. gedlondon says:

    Amazing write up! Really enjoyed it! šŸ™‚

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  2. Fantastic post, Stephen! Rule Britania, eh? We may not have the best rail network yet, but our mixture of exquisite romantic looking architecture and the funkiness of new architecture; unique old-and-new-collide style citiscapes, and our equisite countrysides, really does make our country the envy of the world. Lucky us for living in such a wonderful country!

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    • Exactly. The buildings today are so much better than they used to be. I remember when growing up that there was hardly anything new being built and little was looked cheap and nasty. All the public buildings or open spaces were filthy and falling down. These days things are being built every year and they look funky and made to last and even old places like the British Museum or the grotty Kings Cross station have been transformed. It’s something worth shouting about as if they were in China or Germany or Dubai we’d all rave about them!

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  3. “or better still come and see things for yourself”—Seriously thinking of taking you up on that. But around the Yorkshire area, mind you.

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    • You’d be very welcome. Yorkshire is an amazing place. York itself is a one-off with enough to see for a stay up to a week. The Yorkshire Dales are amazing as are the Moors. Maybe have a say trip up to Durham or over to Whitby, home of Captain Cook and all things Dracula too!

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