016/100 – 7-11 Herbrand Street, London

7-11 Herbrand Street - Wallis, Gilbert and Partners 1931
7-11 Herbrand Street – Wallis, Gilbert and Partners 1931

Now occupied by a communications agency, this wonderful 1930s building feels slightly tucked away. But as soon as you see it – WHOOSH. The glorious paint job helps, but there it is, all subtle curves and fine black lines.

Dating from 1931 (as if you couldn’t tell), this was a coach station and garage, for Daimler car hire. What really knocks me out is that sweeping spiral car ramp, and the bold lift tower. I was interested to see it used to be a coach station – you can see similarities with Victoria Coach Station.

The building is grade II listed, and the entry contains the following ‘historical note':

Daimler-owned cars were stored on the upper floors while the basement was used as a car park, for privately owned cars, with a waiting-room, attendant’s office, lavatories and telephones. Each floor had an electrically operated pressure washing plant for the cars.

015/100 – Goodge Street Deep Level Shelter

Goodge Street Deep Level Shelter
Goodge Street Deep Level Shelter (aka The Eisenhower Centre) – 1942

There are a small number of these odd-looking buildings scattered around London. They are the above-ground structures of London’s deep level shelters, constructed during World War II. Each is associated with a tube station – all but one are by Northern Line stations. There’s one I pass most days near Belsize Park tube, and this one is just off Tottenham Court Road, near Goodge Street tube.

Most were designed to house 8,000 people. This one is known as the Eisenhower Centre, but I’ve found conflicting reports as to whether it was used by the President (the Supreme Allied Commander for D-Day). All were used by the government, but some were opened up to the public when bombing intensified. This one served as a headquarters for the Allied armed forces.

I’m starting to notice a trend with the buildings I’m featuring here – and, in turn, with the buildings I notice when I’m out and about. Much like cabmen’s shelters, phone boxes and police stations, these buildings are all of a certain type – with subtle variations – and they tend to have an intriguing history or use.

It boggles my mind a little bit thinking about what lies beneath this type of building. They tend to be used for storage or network infrastructure now. But the subterranean tunnels, pipes and so on are all generally still intact. Pretty fascinating.

Norway heading towards FM switchover

By 2017, Norway wants to be the first country to ditch FM radio entirely | Ars Technica

This week, Norway’s Ministry of Culture announced its plans to transition completely towards digital radio and turn off FM radio nationwide, according to an English report from Radio.no (the original announcement in Norwegian can be found here). The switch-off is scheduled to begin in January 2017, and it would make Norway the first country in the world to “decide upon an analogue switch-off for all major radio channels,” according to the announcement.

I find this very interesting – I listen to a fair bit of radio and, although I appreciate many of DAB’s features, there’s still a lot to be said for FM. And it’s not just nostalgia: the ubiquity of FM coverage and receivers means an awful lot, but benefits such as FM receivers having much better battery life are hard to ignore.

We’ll see more and more of these stories in coming years. The UK had been considering a relatively early switchover, as soon as 2015 or 2018. A more recent report hints that the ‘tipping point’ necessary for the UK government to re-consider switching off analogue signals will come around the end of 2016. Some countries will have more reason to switch over than others; I suspect that Norway’s geography and population dispersal may mean an early switchover makes more sense than other areas.

I recently picked up a decent little receiver – predominantly to noodle around on the short wave bands, but also as a decent FM device. Part of my reason for getting a new radio was as my previous receiver, a cute John Lewis FM/DAB model, chomps through batteries at quite an alarming rate (the supplied mains cable having bitten the dust some time ago). Annoyingly, the John Lewis model wasn’t even particularly power efficient in FM mode as it has a screen backlight which is on while the radio is on. It also has no clock or alarm features.

My new Tecsun PL-380 receiver

My new toy has a useful clock, alarm, and sensitive digital tuner. It’s compact, and covers a wide range of wave bands. It also appears to be very power efficient. The display is large and can be backlit – but, usefully, can be set to just come on for a few seconds when pressing buttons. I’m using it for a couple of hours a day, most days – and occasionally for many hours at a time.

It doesn’t do DAB – so I’m missing 6 Music. But I’m not missing better reception: I live in London, and the stations I want to listen to come through loud and clear. Even some of the stations I didn’t think I wanted to hear – pirate stations, which I’m surprised to find are still very much alive and healthy – are well received, and it’s quite fascinating to tune up and down the length of the FM band to see what is broadcasting.

And this is all before I even begin rambling about shortwave listening. Picking up direct radio signals from afar is still pretty thrilling. The fact that you can usually hear the same broadcasts online is helpful, but not at all the same. Knowing that you’re picking up a wireless signal that left a tower halfway around the world is really quite awesome. Even in this day and age.

Likewise, picking up local FM transmissions is a nice, direct connection between broadcaster and listener.

I had the unutterable joy of producing and co-hosting regular shows on Manchester’s All FM for a few years while I was at university. Knowing that the signal was leaving the studio not just via webcast, but via FM, was a huge part of the attraction of doing live radio.

And when I last visited Auckland, NZ, I was so happy to be able to tune in my personal little radio to 95bFM, a station that for so long I had only ever been able to hear as an internet stream. Feeling that close connection – by default, as I had to be nearby to pick up the signal – gave me quite a buzz.

In short: FM is great, and I’m glad it’s still going strong.



014/100 – Crystal Palace transmitter

Crystal Palace transmitter
Crystal Palace transmitter – 1956

The transmitting tower at Crystal Palace is huge.

It has towered over the surrounding area from its construction in 1956 – in fact, it was the tallest structure in London until the construction of One Canada Square (at Canary Wharf, which the building is often mistakenly referred to as) in 1991.

And it still towers over its own corner of London, particularly as you approach it on Section Three of the Capital Ring, as Megan and I did this weekend.

I’ve mentioned before that I love a nice landmark on the horizon to head towards when out walking or cycling. It’s usually a church spire. But in this case, it’s the remarkably Eiffel Tower-like lattice of steel that reaches to 219m (719ft).

In a stroke of good timing, our approach coincided with sunset on a clear, spring evening. And so the structure loomed as a fine, delicate silhouette against a sky of various hues, growing as we got closer. It is an awe-inspiring sight.

The tower is the main television transmitter for the London area, and also carries FM and DAB radio, among other signals.

Anecdotally, I have vague memories of tinkering with Ceefax and Teletext in my childhood home of Amersham. I remember finding an engineering page (how?) which gave cryptic technical details. I was able to establish, by way of the three-letter code CRY, that our signals were indeed coming all the way to us from Crystal Palace transmitter.

After completing Section Three last weekend, the dying light meant we only had time for a quick scramble around the remains of the Crystal Palace, and the sports complex, before catching our train home.

I will return though – there’s plenty more to explore, but I just feel the need to go back and enjoy feeling dwarfed by the mast’s height once more.

013/100 – Cabmen’s shelter, Russell Square

Cabmen’s shelter, Russell Square – 1897

I was led to this sweet little shelter via some of this area’s more dramatic buildings – the likes of Senate House, for example. And there it was, all green and modest, almost blending in with the vegetation of the square it sits on.

You’ll see examples of this cabmen’s shelter at various locations around London. They’re quite distinctive – as recognisable, if not as ubiquitous, as red telephone boxes. They exist to provide refreshment to London’s cab drivers. You’ll see, if you squint, a line of cabs just behind it.

They’re the size they are, as they tend to sit on the public highway and shouldn’t take up more space than a horse and cab. And they’re still very well used today.

Similar to red telephone boxes, many (all?) of these little green shelters – along with the one seen above on Russell Square – are grade II listed. This shelter’s listing notes its “steeply pitched half-hipped roof to eaves,” and its “central louvred fleche.”