Battersea Power Station
Battersea Power Station

London Calling – Power to the people

Battersea in South West London is famous for lots of things. There is a beautiful riverside park with a wonderful Buddhist Peace Pagoda; nearby is the school at which the young Royal children are the most famous pupils and just down the road is the Pestana Chelsea Bridge Hotel where the ever-popular ‘Moving to Portugal’ events are held.

Perhaps the most famous edifice though is the colossal riverside power station. This decommissioned building was constructed by the London Power Company between 1929 and 1935, and is one of the largest brick buildings ever constructed on Earth.

Four huge chimneys belted out smoke and produced an astonishing 400 megawatts of electricity to Londoners until it was decommissioned in 1976. Each year, more than 1m tonnes of coal were burned and thousands of people worked on site.

Thanks to its age, the building featured lavish Art Deco interior fittings and décor, but when it was finally fully decommissioned in 1983, it was to lay empty for many years.

The building was listed as a Grade II structure in 1980 and then, in 2007, this listing was upgraded to Grade II*. Whilst guaranteeing it would, therefore, remain a permanent part of London’s skyline, this made development proposals far more complex and expensive.

This iconic structure has been featured in films, TV, music videos and games. Perhaps most famously, it was on the cover of Pink Floyd’s album ‘Animals’ in 1977. For this, a huge, inflatable pink pig was tethered to one of the chimneys but broke loose and drifted across London towards Heathrow airport forcing closure of the runways!

‘The Dark Knight’, ‘Doctor Who’, ‘The King’s Speech’, ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ and The Beatles’ movie ‘Help’ all had scenes filmed at Battersea Power Station.

Various redevelopment plans came along over the years. An indoor theme park was proposed by the owner of Alton Towers but came to nothing followed by a string of mixed retail and residential projects.

World famous architect Rafael Vinoly was involved with a project that would have seen the construction of an ‘Eco Tower’ that would have dwarfed the original building and Chelsea Football Club even contemplated a purpose-built new stadium within the complex but all failed to get across the line.

Then, in 2012, a sale agreement was reached with a Malaysian consortium and work commenced in 2013 on this truly astonishing development. A link to London Transport’s Northern Line was built so the area could have its own tube station.

The chimneys presented a serious challenge. All that burning of coal had damaged them, so each one had to be demolished and re-built. As a mark of the meticulous nature of this renovation alone, each one was built at exactly the same height as before (with each being a slightly different height) and the precise colour match was found.

Frank Gehry was appointed joint architect with Foster and Partners and, with Apple announcing that they would move to the site, things started to take shape. When finally complete, there will be more than 4,000 homes on the site, 295 of which are in the power station itself.

In October 2022, nearly 40 years after the lights last went off, the old power station opened its doors to the public. The huge turbine rooms are now full of retail outlets and restaurants but retain the sense of power and engineering for which the building was originally constructed. Many of the original features have been retained and the switch room full of dials and levers, high on the western side of the structure, is fascinating.

Perhaps the most amazing thing is the ‘great glass elevator’ constructed within the riverside tower on the north-western corner. Lift 109 accelerates excitedly through the chasing lights of the chimney space and then emerges at the top to a truly breathtaking view across the entire City.

Work is still underway at Battersea, but right now is a good time to visit as it is relatively quiet and in a city of nine million people, this alone is unusual for a world-class attraction.

Stand and deliver

Staying in South West London, there is a road junction between Putney and Wimbledon called ‘Tibbet’s Corner’. This is a major intersection on the main road to Portsmouth and was, therefore, a prime spot for highway robbery.

A nearby pub, The Green Man, was a favourite drinking haunt for highwaymen and Dick Turpin himself is said to have hidden his guns in a room upstairs. Fellow highwayman Jerry Abershawe was based there too and whilst when they were caught, they were usually hung in more prominent locations like Tyburn or Kennnigton Common, Abershawe and others were ‘gibbeted’ (displayed on gallows) outside The Green Man. It is thought that the Tibbet’s Corner is a corruption of the word gibbet.

The pub also overlooks Putney Heath, which was a famous venue for duels, with participants drinking at The Green Man before and after the deadly encounter!

The Earl of Shrewsbury was killed here by the Duke of Buckingham in 1667 and two Prime Ministers fought duels with political rivals. In May 1798, Prime Minister William Pitt fought a duel with George Tierney, MP for Southwark, and though both fired twice, they missed each other!

Barely a decade later, in 1809, future Prime Minister George Canning shot his fellow cabinet minister, Lord Castlereagh, in the leg and then helped him to the pub! We think the world has gone mad now but at least government ministers are not trying to kill each other – in public, anyway!

Spare us!

Prince Harry’s series of interviews and the Netflix mini series ‘Harry and Meghan’ certainly grabbed the attention of Londoners, making them join long queues to obtain a copy of his memoir Spare, when it hit the bookshelves earlier this month.

Waterstones opened their flagship store in Piccadilly at midnight and long queues formed outside. A spokesman said it had been one of its “biggest pre-order titles for a decade”.

In the queue, Sarah Nakana from South London said she had already downloaded the audiobook as she wanted to try to “get ahead of the British press and their narratives”, adding she needed “to cut the noise here, read it and be like, ‘fine, I can move on now'”.

Amongst many things we did not really need to know, the Prince revealed that his grandmother, the late Queen, wore ear plugs when listening to the music at her ‘Party in the Palace’, during the Diamond Jubilee celebrations in London!

By Richard Lamberth

Richard leads parallel lives with homes and business interests in London and Portugal. He provides consultancy services to leading businesses in insurance and financial services, property and media sectors. He has four sons, two dogs and enjoys a busy family life. He likes swimming, keeping fit and an outdoor life.
LondonCalling@algarveresident.com