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St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel

St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel


Words & Photography Kirk Truman


“…too beautiful and too romantic to survive.”

This is no ordinary hotel. It’s a London icon, a spectacle; there’s something undeniably romantic about the sight of its fairy-tale towers rising above the eastern end of Euston Road. If its distinctive red exterior is High Victorian splendour, then its interior is the stuff of gilded fantasy – at every turn it reveals some new treasure. The Midland Grand Hotel, now once again resplendent as the St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel, is one of the masterworks of architect Sir George Gilbert Scott, who spent most of his time designing cathedrals and places of worship. It has been the face of one of London’s major gateways for almost 150 years. Firmly embedded within the British psyche, it has stood through two world wars and narrowly escaped death at the hands of 1960s planners. There is history and wisdom in the building’s red brick and coloured Midland stone, and quite a story to tell.

By the 1860s, the Midland Railway was thriving, connecting the industrial heartlands of the East Midlands and Yorkshire with the capital but, lacking a southern terminus, was forced to share tracks with other companies to get its trains into London. So, the decision was made that the Midland would create its own line into the capital. A site for the company’s new London terminus was chosen on the northern side of New Road (today known as Euston Road) in the largely undeveloped district of St. Pancras. Once William Barlow’s spectacular single-span train shed structure was in place, the Midland selected the prominent ecclesiastical architect George Gilbert Scott to design a hotel that would form a spectacular frontage for the station. Scott had recently received a commission from Queen Victoria to create the memorial in Hyde Park to her late husband, Prince Albert. Barlow planned for a large luxury hotel extending westwards along Euston Road, with Scott’s designs making the most of this huge canvas. Taking inspiration from Sir Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin’s Gothic Revival Palace of Westminster (aka the Houses of Parliament), Scott’s designs were grand, costly and far beyond the expectations of Midland: the imposing and ornate structure he was planning was more palace than railway station. In the face of scepticism, Scott persisted, feeling that he was creating an entirely new style as opposed to reviving an old one.

Scott’s audacity paid off, and he promised the Midland that his vision for the hotel would completely eclipse every other terminus in London. Red brick came to be the signature material for his creation; manufactured in the Midlands, it helped create new wealth to the region. While still unfinished, St Pancras Station began operating in 1868. By this time, construction of the neighbouring hotel was under way, and over the next five years, builders, stonemasons, artists, craftsmen and tradesmen laboured to bring Scott’s vision to life.

When the first guests saw the hotel in May 1873 its lavish interiors must have seemed plucked from the realm of fantasy. The grandest rooms on the lower floors included spectacular, 18ft-high decorated ceilings, neo-classical murals and vast south-facing windows to maximise the penetration of natural daylight into the deep floor plans. There were ornate Gothic fanlights over every door, wall-to-wall Axminster carpets, huge fireplaces with carved marble surrounds and Walnut furniture with gold inlay. In the Dining and Coffee Room (today The Gilbert Scott restaurant), pillars of polished limestone lined the walls, their gilded capitals carved with conkers, pea pods and bursting pomegranates. The Ladies’ Smoking Room, the first public room in Europe in which women were permitted to smoke, boasted a breathtaking painted ceiling as well as granite pillars, carved stonework and a magnificent terrace overlooking New Road. Walking about the corridors of the structure today, the grandness of the architecture still makes a powerful and lasting impression; compared to to Scott’s masterpiece, most modern London buildings seem dull and unimaginative.

Perhaps the greatest spectacle of the entire building is the Grand Staircase. This High Victorian, neo-Gothic explosion of extravagant decoration creeps up three storeys before reaching an extraordinary vaulted ceiling. At the time of opening, The Midland Grand was a masterful showcase not just of architecture but technology, featuring flushing toilets and hydraulic lifts. In its heyday, guests paid between three-and-a-half shillings and several pounds to spend a night here, with only The Langham on Portland Place being more expensive.

For over 30 years, the hotel thrived; but rival establishments around London had opened around the turn of the century, and by the 1920s the Midland Grand’s once revolutionary design features were considered to be behind the times. In 1935, the London, Midland and Scottish Railway accepted the inevitable and the hotel closed. Becoming known as St Pancras Chambers, the building survived all attempts by the Luftwaffe and London’s modernising planners to knock it down, being used as offices by British Rail and its hospitality business, British Transport Hotels. During the 1960s, city planners sought to sweep away ‘inefficient’ swathes of London’s architectural heritage, replacing them with system-built blocks – and they had St Pancras and the hotel firmly in their sights. Sir John Betjeman called the plan to demolish St Pancras “a criminal folly”. A founding member of the Victorian Society, along with architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner, Betjeman was able to mobilise a popular campaign against the demolition plans, fearing that St Pancras was “too beautiful and too romantic to survive”. Thankfully, he succeeded in securing for it a Grade I listing in 1967, ensuring its preservation.

The hotel building was eventually abandoned in 1985, standing empty and neglected for almost two decades. It made occasional onscreen appearances, including scenes in Batman (1989) and as the setting of the music video for the hit Spice Girls single ‘Wannabe’. By the mid-1990s, change was in the air, and the largely empty and under-used St Pancras Station was chosen to become the new terminus for the Eurostar service. Again, work began to turn St Pancras into the most advanced and admired station in the UK. In 2002, new life was breathed back into the hotel, with work starting on luxury loft-style apartments on the upper floors. Supported and advised by English Heritage, the Manhattan Loft Corporation (MLC) partnered with Marriott International in restoring the building, and operating the remainder of it as a hotel once more. Hundreds of specialist craftspeople, painters and conservation experts from across the UK started to restore the Midland Grand to its former glory. Today, from the fiery, rich reds and golds in The Gilbert Scott Restaurant (taken from the 1892 interior scheme) to the lighter, calmer greens and golds of the Ladies’ Smoking Room ceiling (a replica of the original 1870s design), the hotel’s historic heart beats on, meeting modernity as the St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel.

Gay’s The Word

Gay’s The Word


Words Roland Glasser

Photography Kirk Truman


“You get a sense that people feel they are in a space of their own.”

A smile plays across Jim MacSweeney’s face as he sits, pensive, clasping a mug of tea in his nook at the rear of the shop. His eyes twinkle as he stares at a point in space just over my shoulder, contemplating visions of the past and future projected on the spines of the books packed tightly on the shelves behind me. Jim has been working here for nearly three decades, two of those as manager. What Jim doesn’t know about Gay’s the Word, the UK’s only remaining dedicated gay and lesbian bookshop, probably isn’t worth knowing.

Gay’s the Word opened in 1979, just 12 years after homosexuality was legalised in the UK. In those days, mainstream bookshops simply didn’t have dedicated sections for gay and lesbian writing. If you were lucky you might have been able to track down a particular book in one of the more niche independent or secondhand bookshops, but it was very hard to get hold of certain titles, particularly non-fiction. Mail order from the USA was often the only option. Gay’s the Word was a lifeline, even though it took a number of years for HM Customs and Excise (who carried out a raid in 1984, seizing hundreds of books) to finally accept that the place was a serious bookshop not a porn peddler.

The long, narrow space contains an astonishing breadth of content. The front part of the shop has a strong fiction section with the usual display of new titles, but keep going, past a slim revolving stand of DVDs (feature films and documentaries), and you’ll find works of non-fiction, poetry, plays, biography, art, erotica, theory, history, fashion and music. An important part of Jim’s job is scouring publishers’ catalogues for anything of “queer interest” (he explains that he uses the term “queer” to cover gay, lesbian, bi and trans, because it’s easier). “There are some novelists who happen to be gay, but the key thing is whether their books have gay themes or protagonists. If so, we’ll consider whether they will be of interest to us. Colm Tóibín is an example. Some of his books are gay, and a whole load of them aren’t. And we will sell less of the ones that aren’t gay because people are coming in here specifically to look for lesbian and gay writing. And obviously we’ll stock novels with gay themes even if the writers are not. Now if it’s poetry, John Ashbery or Mary Oliver, for example, both of whom happen to be gay and lesbian, their work doesn’t deal directly with passion or sexuality or desire, but we’ll stock them because they happen to be queer and they’re poets. We want to have as wide a range as possible, but we need titles that sell. Esoteric books, we might only get one or two copies in, while others like queer theory, will become part of our core stock.”

For many years, the shop was a focal point for gay and lesbian activists and community groups. The rear of the premises, including the very nook where Jim and I are chatting, was where many of them used to meet. There was tea and coffee, a piano for sing-a-longs and a large noticeboard where people posted ads, flyers and leaflets about anything and everything. The piano and coffee bar have long gone to make way for more bookshelves, but several groups still meet at the shop – the Lesbian Discussion Group has been meeting here for over 35 years – and there are regular events, readings and book launches. I am amazed when Jim tells me they can seat 45 people on folding chairs.

Gay’s the Word still plays an important role as a portal for those seeking advice or support, or simply exploring their own queer identity through literature, regardless of age or gender. Jim recounts how a woman recently came in with her 14-year-old daughter: “She sat down in the teen section and looked at the books, and the mum chatted to me and then went off for a coffee, letting her daughter work away. When she came back, her daughter had chosen and her mum paid for the books. And I loved how relaxed she was, and how things have changed. Because it’s so easy to think of difficult times, bricks through the window or homophobic abuse. We get very little of that now.”

I wonder what place there is for Gay’s the Word today, given how easy it is to find many of these titles in large bookshops or online. Jim is adamant: “A lot of the sections in mainstream bookshops aren’t very good, with a few notable exceptions, or else they focus on erotic fiction, more obvious stuff. They are also getting smaller as they run out of space. People come in here because we have an extraordinary range of books pulled in from everywhere. We really know the stuff, and we read. It’s also a non-judgmental space. There’s a community feel. I really like the amount of young women and men we now get coming in since the film Pride, which really made people aware of the history of the place. They ask for recommendations, they talk about books, they ask questions. You might see some of them holding hands, or stealing a quick kiss at the back. And of course we get people from abroad who search us out. You get a sense that people feel they are in a space of their own. Whereas if you’re in a mainstream bookshop, say, and you’re buying a book on coming out, or erotica, or gay spirituality, you might feel uncomfortable as you go up to the counter, but here this is what we do.” Love, indeed. Love of books and love of people. In these uncertain times, Gay’s the Word remains as special and as vital as ever.

Eclectics

Eclectics


Words Kirk Truman

Photography Etienne Gilfillan


“We formed a collective in order to reach our fullest potential and keep our craft fresh.”

In the private gardens of the Bedford Estates, a strikingly beautiful young girl steps forward. She slips into a heavy REMADE Schneetarn Anorak by English fashion designer, Christopher Raeburn. First, she begins to shimmy from side to side, then to flex her body, the fabric following her limbs in their every move. Her face wears an elusive smile as she begins to dance. She is immersed in her passion: her name is Valerie Ebuwa.

I’ll come clean: dance is something of a riddle to me, simply because I can’t do it to save my life. Which only increases my admiration for the profound commitment and sheer passion for performance that this group of young artists share. Valerie and her team of urban contemporary dancers captivate me, so I’m fascinated to learn more about the origins of their Eclectics dance and performance group and hear about their relationship with the Bloomsbury area.

Valerie tells me that Eclectics was something she and her colleagues had always foreseen. The group is made up of a trio of close friends who met during dance training at Bloomsbury’s The Place, a powerhouse for dance development that leads the way in training, creation and performance. Though they all received frequent individual offers of work from a variety of different events and agencies, their shared interests in dance, music, and fashion led them to take their passion to the next level by becoming a group. “Having a variety of multidisciplinary skills, we formed a collective that performs, choreographs and teaches in order to reach our fullest potential and keep our craft fresh,” explains Valerie, “and having many different backgrounds within the group we often teach each other too – so it’s a constant, ever-growing collective.” The group comprises London-born Valerie Ebuwa and Ryan Munroe, and Claire Shaw from Wales. Together, they manage bookings, events, rehearsals and choreography, collaborating with a mix of independent businesses, venues and brands, including some international names such as Nike.

As individuals, the members of Eclectics naturally have their own personal ambitions, but as a collective their aim is to promote contemporary dance to new audiences who may not know much about this particular world; it’s a way to both inform and inspire others. “The contemporary dance world has a niche, elitist audience – usually contemporary dancers, their friends and families. It’s our aim to educate people about what exactly contemporary dance is whilst also changing the face of contemporary dance. Not too long ago, dance degrees could only be obtained by those whose families could support vocational training. As a result, contemporary dance companies have often been made up of people from similar backgrounds and ethnic origins,” says Valerie. “These people often do similar work because they have all been trained in the same way. Eclectics aims to have mixed ensembles of talented individuals from all backgrounds in order to change the perception of contemporary dance for good.”

The group spent three years in training at the London Contemporary Dance School (aka The Place), the UK’s number one school for contemporary dance. As the school is located on Bloomsbury’s Duke’s Road, the three then-students spent much of their time in and around the neighbourhood for the duration of the course. “Having spent three years here, we as a collective realised that Bloomsbury residents were still unaware of how the area plays such a huge role in the future of contemporary dance,” says Valerie. Once they’d graduated, they decided to make their keep their base in the area, choreographing site-specific works that would both educate people about contemporary dance and also pay homage to the area that had nurtured them and so many other UK dance artists.

When I asked Valerie to explain what makes Eclectics different from other contemporary dance groups, she emphasised just how multidisciplinary the collective is and how it lives up to the promise of its name. “We not only choreograph and train in contemporary dance, but we regularly perform hip hop, dancehall, samba, commercial, African and jazz choreographies. We integrate all of our different styles together, rather than just contemporary dance. We often travel to different countries to enhance our understanding of different dance styles and genres and also use other movement art forms such as yoga, capoeira, kung fu and other martial arts to enhance and inform our work,” she says. Eclectics also design all of their own sets, costumes and lighting: “So all the work comes from us.”

This is an exciting time for the group, who have plenty of plans for the future. “We are be looking to expand our connections with local residents and this year’s graduates of London Contemporary Dance School in order to keep the promotion of contemporary dance within the area alive and fresh. We hope to bring contemporary dance to the foreground in Bloomsbury, and get it out of its current somewhat backyard existence,” says Valerie. The group are also in talks for many more events, shows and residencies, as well as music video performances. As I watch Valerie, Ryan and Claire improvising together, I try and define what it is that makes their performance so captivating. It’s a matter of personality and spirit, of sheer love of dance, but of something else too. As they dance, jump and stretch, I notice that their eyes meet as they constantly observe and react to one another: and it’s clear that what makes Eclectics special is that they are three friends who share a close, courageous creative bond.

 

Louise Russell

Louise Russell


Words Kirk Truman

Photography Etienne Gilfillan


 

“Bloomsbury is a centre of culture, joining together education, history and diversity at every turn…”

We have left behind the leafy street corners of Bloomsbury and find ourselves in the green fields of Woburn, Bedfordshire. Through the country lanes full of ferns that lean toward the roadside, we make the approach to the 13,000-acre estate of Woburn Abbey. Although it is 50 miles from London, this is the home of a family that has been integral in helping develop Bloomsbury into the place we know and love today. As we walk through the corridors of the Abbey, soaking up the sense of history and admiring the many portraits that line the walls, a lady approaches with a small dog in tow. Her Grace, Louise Russell, The Duchess of Bedford, lives at the Abbey with her husband Andrew, the 15th Duke of Bedford, and their two children. Though it is 50 miles from London, this is the home of a family that has been integral in helping develop Bloomsbury into the place we know and love today. It soon becomes clear, as Louise talks about Bloomsbury’s Bedford Estates and her role as Patron of the upcoming Bloomsbury Festival, that this is very much an ongoing relationship.

The Russell family has been part of the fabric of the Bloomsbury neighbourhood for over 300 years. When William, Lord Russell, married Lady Rachel Wriothesley in 1669, the Bloomsbury Estate came into the ownership of the Russell family. Rachel had inherited the estate upon the death of her father, the 4th Earl of Southampton, two years earlier. He had died leaving three daughters but no male heir, thus his estates were divided equally between his children. William, Lord Russell, was the eldest surviving son of the 5th Earl of Bedford. He became implicated in the Rye House Plot of 1683 and was executed for treason. The family was later pardoned, and the Dukedom was created in 1694. The couple had lived at Southampton House in Bloomsbury with their children, including the future 2nd Duke of Bedford. Southampton House became the primary ducal London residence and was renamed Bedford House in 1734 and later demolished in 1800, facilitating the creation of Russell Square. Much of the landscape and architecture of Bloomsbury is the work of past Dukes and Duchesses of Bedford. It was the formidable Duchess Gertrude, widow of the 4th Duke, who created the much admired Bedford Square and Gower Street, while Tavistock Square takes its name from the courtesy title given to the eldest sons of the Dukes of Bedford: the Marquess of Tavistock.

Louise has a passion for Bloomsbury, describing its notable architecture, fine Georgian squares and rich history as captivating and unmatched in Central London. “I hate the term up-and-coming, though there is something really quite unique about Bloomsbury that defines it as different from nearby neighbourhoods such as Fitzrovia, Soho and Marylebone,” she says. “Bloomsbury is a centre of culture, joining together education, history and diversity at every turn. Iconic literary and intellectual figures throughout history have made Bloomsbury their home, from Charles Dickens to Virginia Woolf. The Bedford Estates is proud of this heritage.”

Since it was established in 2006, The Bloomsbury Festival has become a focal point of the neighbourhood calendar. Celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, the festival is a creative explosion of arts, science, literature, culture and fun. It’s a unique event, representative of the neighbourhood’s spirit, bringing together over 100 world-leading institutions, from drama, dance and visual art colleges to creative businesses, theatres, cinemas, ground-breaking scientists, thinkers, and publishing houses. Led by festival director Kate Anderson, the 2016 Festival takes place over five days from 19th to 23rd October, with a schedule of about 150 events in venues across the neighbourhood – streets, parks, museums, galleries and public and private buildings are all involved. For 2016, the theme of the festival is language, marking the Centenary of SOAS and also reflecting the rich diversity of the neighbourhood’s population. The interpretation of the theme is broad, promising a varied programme that will bring it to life: expect street parties celebrating the language of dance, debates on the language of social change, poets battling it out against technology, a sound installation of endangered languages, and many more wide-ranging creative projects and performances throughout the festival’s duration. Throughout the weekend of the festival, Store Street’s unique independent shops and restaurants will remain open later than usual and will each house a different art or music experience.

The Bedford Estates is one of the lead partners of this year’s Bloomsbury Festival, and has supported the event for many years, with Louise acting as Patron. The Duchess is an ambassador for the entirety of the programme, meeting with the festival chair and director throughout the year to discuss strategic plans, development and fundraising. Louise takes an active role in all of these capacities, hosting a number of receptions to help raise the festival’s profile and support its fundraising drive. The Duchess is a particular advocate for work that involves the community at all levels, especially the Step Out Store Street event, which this year takes place on Friday 21st October. “I would love to encourage as many people to come as possible – it’s really worth coming along! It’s a happy, vibrant and relaxed atmosphere, which captures the essence of the neighbourhood. If this corner of London is accessible to you, it would be a shame to miss it. Last year’s event on Store Street was a huge success,” she says. “It was attended by some 3,000 people, and the street was lined with fire sculptures inspired by 2015’s theme of light.”

The 10th Bloomsbury Festival is set to both captivate and represent the neighbourhood over its five days, and it’s one way in which the Bedford Estates maintains its historical links with the neighbourhood and continues its work here in modern day Bloomsbury, working closely with various stakeholders and the local London Borough of Camden to enhance the public realm and celebrate the cultural heritage of the area.

Cathal McAteer

Cathal McAteer


Words & Photography Kirk Truman


“I fell in love with clothes, the idea and process of making the best clothes that I could…”

Folk is a word that can refer both to a sense of tradition and to the ordinary people who sustain it. Making your way along Lambs Conduit Street, it’s also a word you’ll see adorning two shop-fronts: one at No 49, and another at No 53. Here, on one of Bloomsbury’s premier streets for both independent shops and bigger high-street names, Scotsman Cathal McAteer, founder of Folk Clothing, has established a brand that is now a name for refined style and quality.

Folk offers elegance enriched by subtle details to its products for both men and women. In essence, it’s about style without the drama. Detail is key to the brand: from the stitching and buttons to the fabrics themselves, there are no shortcuts or half-measures.

“We don’t try to be mainstream. We’re niche – it’s all about the small things” says Cathal. “We don’t go to the button shop. We take care of every single detail ourselves: we never compromise. The thing we come back to quite a lot is to have more than you show. We like things to be instantly recognisable, without a label or a brand on them. Everything is in the details – and in the hidden details, the textures and fabrics too. Some people might say we care way too much, or waste too much time doing these things, but we think this finishes pieces off in a way that makes us satisfied with the garment. It just happens to be how I like to do things, you know?”

Cathal founded Folk in 2002, and has since navigated between streetwear and the architect-designer aesthetic, helping create a scene for well-made casual clothing with a modern British edge. Cathal grew up in Glasgow, where he started out working in shops from an early age. “I’ve been working in fashion since I was about 17. I’m not from a design background, I started out working in shops and then later on ended up working as a buyer,” he explains. “My friend told me I should call it Folk, so I did. Sometime later he wanted to call his brand Folk, but I was already too far gone!” he laughs. “I basically always knew it was going to happen. It was a natural progression from what I was doing before. I’d been in Japan with a friend of mine, and these guys had asked me when I was going to start my own brand. Some people offered to pay for their orders in advance, which helped me get things started. For about five years I’ve always had another business that helped to fund Folk. The profits went into the brand, until we began working with a selling agency further down the line. It kind of started organically, and from there it went on to become what it is now. I fell in love with clothes, the idea and process of making the best clothes that I could, and making them as accessible as possible to consumers.”

Beginning as a menswear line, Folk has since gone on to expand into footwear, accessories, furniture and womenswear. Bloomsbury has long been the backdrop for the brand, with the first store having opened on Lambs Conduit Street more than a decade ago and its head office based just round the corner on Emerald Street. “I guess I’ve always been a bit of a hippy at heart,” says Cathal. ”Our customer is really into clothes. They recognise quality and craft in products – they posses a real vanity for covering up vanity.” Looking back, he admits “the first few collections were truly shit. But as time went on we found our way. A friend of mine asked to meet me for a pint on Lambs Conduit Street way back. He told me if I was ever going to have a shop, I should have it here.” It turned out to be a wise decision. “Back then, there was nothing here compared to what there is today. To me, it’s a great position in London – it’s set perfectly in the middle of town. I’ve worked all over, but this is as perfect as it gets.” In the future, Cathal intends to evolve Folk and keep it embedded here in London, mentioning the possibility of a potential third store on Lambs Conduit Street in the near future. Whatever lies ahead for the brand, Folk’s roots will remain right here in Bloomsbury where it all started.

 

Grant Museum of Zoology

Grant Museum of Zoology


Words & Photography Kirk Truman


“He was a biologist 30 years before Charles Darwin ever published. He taught Darwin evolution. Grant was his mentor…”

One of the great pleasures of living in Bloomsbury is its constant ability to surprise, to give up a new secret, to reveal another hidden gem. I’m almost ashamed to admit that it was only a couple of years ago that I discovered one such secret, a wonderful cabinet of curiosities that had hitherto gone under my radar. I speak of Bloomsbury’s Grant Museum of Zoology on University Street. I met Jack Ashby of the University College London Public and Cultural Engagement Department to learn something of the history of this remarkable collection.

Jack tells to me that the museum’s name derives from Professor Robert Edmond Grant (1793-1874), who established the Museum of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy in 1827 to serve as a teaching collection at the then newly founded University of London (what you and I now know as University College London). Born in Edinburgh, Grant studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh and became best known for his work on marine invertebrates, in particular sponges, sea pens and molluscs. “Nobody has ever heard of him. He’s not in any way famous, though he should be. He was one of the earliest evolutionary biologists. He was a biologist 30 years before Charles Darwin ever published. He taught Darwin evolution – Grant was his mentor,” says Jack. Grant was the first Professor of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy in England, and upon arrival at London University found there were no teaching materials with which to conduct his courses – so he immediately began to amass specimens, material for dissection, diagrams and lecture notes. On his deathbed, he was persuaded by colleague William Sharpey (1802-1880) to leave his considerable collection of books, academic papers and natural history specimens to the college. This ensured that successive generations of students would have access to his knowledge. While, sadly, Grant’s personal papers have never been found, his collection forms the basis of the museum today.

The collection has grown organically over time up, getting considerably larger between the early 1980s and early 2000s when other colleges and universities throughout London began to donate their own collections to the Grant museum. “They had decided they no longer required any sort of collection of zoology,” says Jack. “Animal biology had begun to go out of fashion, with people just teaching molecular biology and genetics. Today many universities in London have realised that you can’t teach a student what a tiger looks like by looking at its genes – you actually need some whole animal bits too!”

In absorbing a whole variety of collections, the museum has effectively become a museum of museums. Today, it houses a collection from the Gordon Museum – a collection of animal brains from the comparative anatomy collections at King’s College London – and Imperial College London’s entire fossil, skeletal and spirit specimen collection, which was transferred to UCL in the 1980s. Soon after, in the 1990s, primatology and fossil hominid materials were donated from the Napier Collection, along with subsequent donations from a variety of other sources throughout the city. A large majority of the specimens in the collection originate from the Victorian era, with many others having been on display for over 180 years. Among them you’ll find one of the rarest skeletons in the world, that of the extinct quagga, an unusual half-striped zebra from South Africa. It’s the only mounted quagga skeleton in the UK, and no more than seven quagga skeletons survive globally. The museum also boasts a number of wax models used in teaching and around 20,000 microscope slides, many of which are displayed on a giant vertical light box – which makes for interesting viewing, to say the least.

Having been traditionally only made available to students, the collection was fully opened to the public in 1997 for two afternoons a week; today, teaching takes place every day in term time and the Grant Museum is open to visitors six days a week. In over 170 years much has befallen the museum. In 1884, a ceiling collapse destroyed a number of specimens; there were further ceiling collapses and flooding in the 1890s; and by the 1970s the roof was completely missing. During the dark days of the Second World War the entire collection was evacuated to Bangor, and in subsequent decades it faced numerous threats of closure. In recent years, however, the museum has gone from strength to strength.

The museum itself has relocated many times. When it was opened to the public in 1997, the collection moved to the UCL Darwin Building. In March 2011, the museum was moved again, this time to the wonderful Rockefeller Building on University Street, which was formally the Medical School Library. The museum continues to be used as a teaching collection, just as it was in Professor Grant’s day. Today, it is fully accessible to more people than ever before through outreach and through public displays. Remarkably, the museum remains something of a secret from the wider Bloomsbury neighbourhood in which it rests. Jack Ashby and the staff at the museum fully encourage visits from the general public and are always keen to raise awareness of this hidden gem. The Grant Museum is sure to stimulate the imagination of anybody who steps into its corridors and explores its numerous odd exhibits. After all, with such a wonderfully eccentric collection on your doorstep, you’d be mad as a box of quaggas not to pay it a visit!

 

Skoob Books

Skoob Books


Words Chloe Moss

Photography Kirk Truman


“What makes Bloomsbury important is the culture that’s here…”

Exit Russell Square tube station, having conquered its seemingly never-ending steps, bypass the crowded Brunswick Centre, veer off the main shopping drag, and you will find one of the great treasures of Bloomsbury. In an unassuming location – next to Waitrose and down a flight of stairs – is Skoob, the second-hand bookshop that is home to possibly the largest privately owned book collection in the world. Venture down those stairs in search of a particular book and you will not only find it but most likely come away with several other titles you didn’t even know you were looking for. Yes, Skoob is a treasure-trove of a place, its tightly-packed shelves playing host to around 65,000 volumes on the shop floor alone, another 45,000 in basement storage, and around one million in a warehouse in Oxford. If you didn’t believe me when I said it was a large collection, those numbers should do the talking.

It’s fitting that Skoob – which opened 1978 on Sicilian Avenue, near Bloomsbury Square, and has operated from a variety of premises around London – is now back in the literary haven of Bloomsbury, where it has made its home for the past 9 years. With such a vast collection, your first question might be (well, mine was) where does it all come from? Chris, the manager and the man behind the seemingly endless rows of books, tells me that it comes from anywhere and everywhere. Oxford colleges, London academics, people downsizing, or their own lucky finds. Thankfully for Chris, we Londoners are typically short on space and always looking to shed a few volumes. The book collector of today is changing. Space is hard to come by, and even if you do have some room, downsizing is a reality. Not only that, but we’re constantly on the move. So as Londoners find themselves running out of space or leading a transient lifestyle that makes them reluctant to be weighed down, Chris and the rest of the Skoob staff are there to pick up the literary remains. They gather collections both great and small and of every conceivable genre to fill their shelves, which burst with books for every kind of reader.

“We undertake not to shred, and to find another read, another buyer, for a book,” says Chris. All of the books they collect, even yet more Jilly Cooper paperbacks, will eventually end up on the shop floor or on the carefully selected online shop. Skoob is committed to continually replenishing whatever sells with something better, so that customers are never at a loss to find something. Restocking happens every time a sale is made, but the process is not random. As Chris explains: “If I just replace that with any old book, then gradually the quality goes down. So what we need to do every time a book sells is replace it with a better one. Better than the gap that’s left.” It’s the sort of approach that demonstrates how much attention Skoob pays to its customers: the staff always want to find the right book for every shopper. “We recognise that all our customers are individuals and aren’t going to be herded into buying the latest fashion.”

I am one of the many customers to which Skoob caters. As a student I thankfully discovered Skoob not far into my first year of reading English Literature. I say thankfully because had I not taken a friend’s recommendation early on into my first few weeks of living a stone’s throw from Russell Square, my three years of education in London would have wound up being a lot more expensive. Even when I moved out of the area, I still returned to Skoob on a regular basis, not simply for practical reasons but out of a fondness for its packed shelves. I never left empty handed and rarely with just the items on my list; testament not just to my shopping habit, but also to how well stocked this shop is. If I went in looking for an affordable copy of Little Dorrit, I left with an armful of Faulkner as well.

The last decade has seen a huge change not just in the make-up of Londoners, but more specifically in the capital’s student population. They buy fewer books, and when they do, they go second-hand, both online and in penny-saving sanctuaries like Skoob. This is great news for the shop, whether students have grouped together and shared the cost of one reading list, or whether they go solo as I do. It’s great news for impoverished readers too, and makes Skoob an utter haven for people like me, looking to shave off some academic costs so there’s something left for cocktails. The easy atmosphere, extensive back catalogue and low prices make the shop a destination for London’s students, particularly given its location close to many university halls.

For regulars, students or bibliophilic tourists, Skoob is more than just a Bloomsbury institution and a shrine to the area’s literary history. As the shop continues to evolve and grow, as the staff forever restock the shelves, Skoob continues that history in the best possible way. Chris will keep buying books because of his desire to always delight his customers and to maintain the literary legacy of the area.

“One of the things about Britain is the vibrant literary culture”. Bloomsbury, synonymous as it is with the names of Virginia Woolf, Vita Sackville-West, and other key members of the Bloomsbury Group, has played host to much of that cultural history. The plethora of blue plaques and famous landmarks are a testament to this, and people flock here for that very reason. Despite its celebrated history, the area is increasingly in danger of being homogenised. Seventeen bookshops have closed in the area in the last 10 years. That’s why Skoob, in its dedication to continually cultivating its collection and looking to the future, is one of the most important treasures of Bloomsbury. Long may it remain here – if only to convince me that I need more Faulkner.

 

Store Street Espresso

Store Street Espresso


Words & Photography Kirk Truman


“We’re one of the few independent coffee shops that has remained independent”

Walk down Store Street and you leave behind the roar of the West End and cross the bridge into the more peaceful world of Bloomsbury. Starting at Tottenham Court Road in the west and ending at Gower Street in the east, Store Street is one of the most diverse in the neighbourhood, indeed in all of central London. Just a short walk from the British Museum and some of London’s top universities, Store Street Espresso has become a favourite with students, locals and visitors alike, making it a serious contender on London’s independent café scene.

Serving delicious artisan coffee since 2009, Store Street Espresso has fast became an institution on the street from which it takes its name and one of the best coffee shops in Bloomsbury. Boasting an excellent selection of sandwiches and pastries, as well as consistently delicious coffee, Store Street Espresso caters for a growing band of loyal customers. As you’d expect, they’re a diverse clientele, drawn from the neighbourhood’s mix of academia and commerce. The café was the brainchild of friends Rog and Jack. Having identified an impending coffee explosion in the city, they opened up with a simple aim: to offer great coffee to the people of Bloomsbury.

“Originally we just wanted to make some nice coffee, work with great equipment and have a cool space for the locals to hang out. On top of that it is always important that we provide a fun environment for people to work in, and for them to feel that they can have influence on what we do,” says General Manager Momo. Coffee is still at the centre of what they do, and their passion and enthusiasm for experimenting and trying new suppliers is evident both in their vast selection and on their Instagram feed, which on any given day is full of shout-outs to their most popular suppliers. “I’m open to all suggestions,” says Momo, “and because of that we were one of the first speciality coffee shops to produce cold brew, bulk brew filter and matcha, all of which has brought us a lot of success.”

It was this success that led to the opening of a second branch, closer to King’s Cross. “Honestly”, Momo tells me, “we were victims of our own popularity. We had reached the limits of what we could do in the space we had, the second store provided us with an opportunity to have an in-house kitchen so we could make our own sweets and offer cooked brunch for customers. It was a chance to try something new and different from the original, but to keep it familiar.” Recognising the need for expansion allowed them to grow the business on their own terms, and keeping their duo of cafes close together has facilitated this. The second Store Street Espresso can be found on Tavistock Place, not far from Russell Square, offering a port in the storm for anyone looking to escape King’s Cross and enjoy a peaceful interlude of coffee, cake and people-watching through the vast street-facing windows.

“All we knew was that we wanted it to be simple, minimal and different.” This signature minimalist style runs throughout every element of both locations. The relaxed café is a haven for students escaping the library, busy freelancers seeking a bit of human interaction and tourists and locals in search of sustenance and a break in their busy day. The minimalist interiors keep the space light and airy, with few distractions other than the array of tempting treats on offer. Store Street Espresso sources from anyone and everyone: local suppliers, recommendations or requests from regulars, or members of the team championing something they’ve discovered. This collaborative approach fits well with the community vibe that the café shares with Bloomsbury in general.

Arriving at 40 Store Street, you’re quickly lured in by the distinct aroma of coffee. The skylights at the rear of the café make it feel a bit like an airy workshop, while the bright walls add to the cheerful feel. At present, those walls also illustrate Store Street Espresso’s dedication to the local community, hosting an art exhibition in conjunction with the upcoming Bloomsbury Festival.

Is Store Street Espresso Bloomsbury’s living room? Perhaps. What is certain is that it guarantees excellent service and some of the best coffee in the area – not to mention the perfect vegetable quiche. It continues to be clear about its aims: great coffee for every taste, and a relaxing environment for people to visit. As Momo puts it, “We’re one of the few independent coffee shops that has remained independent, Jack and Rog still work closely with the team every day.” Expansion will hopefully continue for Store Street Espresso as they explore new locations, but they intend to stay anchored in Bloomsbury – with the area’s unique community feel, it remains the ideal base of operations.

 

Julia Lundsten

Julia Lundsten


Words Chloe Moss

Portraits Etienne Gilfillan


“When designing clothes I always felt like the body says what the clothes look like… but shoes are always the same.”

My first thought upon being handed a pair of towering FINSK heels was that I was about to take a tumble. Being slightly lacking in grace and poise, I braced myself for at least a wobble. But once I’d donned the striking colour block shoes with their cut-out heels I soon realised that not only was I not going to fall, but that my feet were surprisingly at home in this initially scary footwear. If even I can stay upright, then it’s testament to the fact that FINSK shoes are as functional as they are eye-catching.

Created in 2004 by Finnish designer Julia Lundsten, FINSK has become synonymous with avant-garde yet entirely wearable designs, championing an architecturally driven aesthetic and a simplified colour palette. With an emphasis on a modern, structural look, FINSK keynotes include cut-out heels and colour blocking, eschewing frills and embellishments and letting the shape of the shoe do the talking. Most importantly, Julia’s shoes take into account comfort, and actually allow the wearer to move. Whilst collaborating with Dutch fashion designer Iris Van Herpen for her Spring/Summer 2016 collection at Paris Fashion Week, Julia was a huge hit with the models, who told her they were in awe of how easy the shoes were to move in. “All the models were like ‘Wow! I feel like I can run around’”. So although the shoes make an intimidating first impression, they are ultimately founded on a strong understanding of practical components, making for incredibly wearable design.

The focus on architectural influences comes naturally to Julia, whose parents both worked as architects. Having studied fashion design at the Royal College of Art, she realised that footwear was her true passion because of her appreciation for structural design. “When designing clothes I always felt like the body says what the clothes look like – because someone is big or someone is thin and they look so different – but shoes are always the same.” After graduating in 2003 Julia worked on a freelance basis for numerous clients whilst honing her own design plans. By working for a Brazil-based company she was able to explore what would become the base for her own future studio and had the opportunity to begin working on her own collection while still learning from other, established brands. After a year or two, Julia launched her first collection and FINSK, with its distinct brand identity, was born.

Having gained access to Brazilian ateliers through her freelance work, Julia made the decision to base her own factory there because of the highly skilled craftsmen, and the opportunity to ethically source every material going into her shoes. Her guiding principle was that “we never use leathers just for the sake of the leather”, so the primary materials for the shoes come from animals farmed for meat, rather than solely for their hides. Basing the atelier in Brazil also allowed her to take advantage of local craftsmanship and the unique techniques used in shoemaking there. With Brazil hosting fourteen people working on the practical side, two others overseeing the work, and Julia and her business partner based in Bloomsbury, FINSK operates with a relatively small team, allowing the collections to feel like a genuinely collaborative effort.

FINSK hash numerous shared credits under its belt, having worked with the likes of Basso & Brooke, Marimekko, Tia Cibani and Ports 1961 to create footwear to accompany their respective runway collections. There is also the collaboration with Iris Van Herpen for Spring/Summer 2016. Van Herpen’s collection combined craftsmanship with technology in a line that involved laser-cut, highly structural pieces. Julia’s footwear, then, with its sky-high and intricately carved heels in nude and black, provided the perfect accent to a collection that focused on sharp shapes.

Another exciting collaboration sees FINSK teaming up with Finish heritage rubber footwear brand Nokian. Famous for their wellington boots made using natural rubber, the brand’s secret formula, created in 1989, is still used today. The challenge for Julia was to combine her own techniques, established over a decade, with those of a European-based factory to create something that represented the FINSK aesthetic. Having worn Nokian boots as a child, Julia wanted to create versions that she could wear as a busy adult. The collection itself showcases the artistry of both brands, with the distinctive FINSK stamps of colour blocking and a structural heel transforming the humble wellington into something that you might even wear to the office.

Having introduced a unisex line, Julia continues to showcase the diverse nature of her designs, as well as responding to the ever-changing landscape of the fashion industry. FINSK has long since ceased to adhere to the traditional fashion calendar, preferring to respond to their clients’ desire to shop the looks they want when they want – and many international brands are now following suit. While some buyers seemed initially bemused by Julia’s intimidatingly architectural shoes, the response has been overwhelmingly positive. FINSK has built a loyal following and continues to offer exciting and challenging designs.

Continental Stores

Continental Stores


Words Chloe Moss

Photography Kirk Truman


“We are drawn to Bloomsbury. The clientele, the mix of students, academics, tourists, residents and business workers, provides a wonderful eclectic mix I doubt we could find again in such a small area of London”

The coffee scene in London is pretty crowded. I’m talking physically, of course, given the way in which I navigate, on the daily, through crowds of people in my local haunts with the determination familiar to many a disgruntled, deadline-ridden freelancer looking for their preferred table (close to a plug socket) and a caffeine fix. It’s more than just that, though. Since the city saw a boom in independent coffee shops five or six years ago, everywhere you turn you’re forced to choose between three independent coffee bars, each staffed by men with impressive beards standing behind marble counters with exposed light bulbs overhead. That’s not to say I don’t love the latte art and the highly photogenic interiors that dominate even my Instagram feed; but if we’re honest, such is the embarrassment of riches we Londoners face, it sometimes feels as if we have too much choice. That’s where Store Street Espresso comes in.

The story behind Store Street Espresso begins, predictably, at 40 Store Street, from which the café takes its name. The busy street, home to a multitude of cafés, restaurants, bars and bookshops, sits under the watchful eye of the nearby British Museum, and Store Street Espresso has been part of it since 2009. Initially conceived by friends Rog and Jack, who spotted an impending coffee explosion in the city, its aim was simple: to offer up really great coffee to the people of Bloomsbury.

Momo, the General Manager, explained the initial concept. “Originally we just wanted to make some nice coffee, work with great equipment and have a cool space for the locals to hang out. On top of that it’s always important that we provide a fun environment for people to work in, and for them to feel that they can have an influence on what we do.” Coffee is still at the centre of what they do, and their passion and enthusiasm for experimenting and trying new suppliers is evident both in their vast selection and on their Instagram feed, which is crowded with shout-outs to their most popular suppliers on any given day. “I’m open to all suggestions, and because of that we were one of the first speciality coffee shops to produce cold brew, bulk brew filter and matcha, all of which have brought us a lot of success.”

This success led to the opening of the second branch closer to King’s Cross, a café I’ve frequented on many a daily jaunt. “Honestly”, Momo tells me, “we were victims of our own success. We had reached the limits of what we could do in the space we had. The second store provided us with an opportunity to have an in-house kitchen so we could make our own sweets and offer cooked brunch for the locals. It was a chance to try something new and a bit different from the original, but keep it familiar.” Recognising the need for expansion allowed them to grow the business on their own terms, and keeping their duo of cafes close together has further enabled this. The second Store Street Espresso is nestled in Tavistock Place not far from Russell Square, offering a port in the storm for anyone looking to escape hectic King’s Cross for a peaceful interlude of coffee, cake and people-watching through the vast street-facing windows.

“All we knew was that we wanted it to be simple, minimal and different”. Their signature style runs throughout every element of both locations. The relaxed café is a haven for students needing a break from the British Library, freelancers seeking some human interaction and tourists and locals looking for sustenance and a pause in their busy day. The minimalist interiors keep the space light and airy, with few distractions other than the array of tempting treats on offer. Store Street source from anyone and everyone: local suppliers, recommendations or requests from regulars, or members of the team championing something they’ve discovered. This collaborative approach lends itself to the community vibe that Store Street Espresso shares with Bloomsbury in general.

Just as Bloomsbury, with its rich history, acts as a hub for British literary culture and attracts an eclectic mix of people, so Store Street has become a hub for a similarly diverse clientele. With the surrounding streets crowded with students, tourists, local residents and stressed-out freelancers alike, there’s no shortage of exciting new people to meet as well as loyal regulars. Store Street continues to be clear about its message: great coffee for every taste, and a relaxing environment for the customers. And, as Momo adds: “We’re also one of the few independent coffee shops that has remained independent. Jack and Rog still work closely with the team every day.” Expansion will hopefully continue for Store Street Espresso as they explore new locations, but they intend to stay anchored in Bloomsbury – with the area’s unique community feel, it remains the ideal base of operations.