Saturday 12 November 2011

The Pedway: London on the first floor

Walk around parts of the city of London and you stumble across them - strange walkways, stair wells and bridges, all seemingly heading nowhere. Like something from a brutalist CS Lewis novel, they are forgotten concrete portals to a vision of London that foundered in the Thatcher years. Now as mysterious and eerie as urban stone circles, these are the remnants of the abandoned Pedway scheme.

Its story is one of London's stranger secrets: planned obliteration not by the Luftwaffe or terrorists but by the GLC. The general idea was to wipe out central London as we know it and replace it with a massive road network at ground level, with pedestrians, shops, homes and offices at first floor level. Pretty Doctor Who you're thinking, but take a look at the Barbican, the most intact section of Pedway, and you'll get an idea of how the City fathers and the GLC envisaged a brand new London. I love the Barbican like a concrete brother, but I think I might miss the Temple, Leadenhall Market, and Newman Passage if they were all replaced by mile long corridors and rain-streaked pebbledash.

Steering pedestrians away from the stinky, overcrowded streets of London has been on the planning agenda since the nineteenth century. Back then, Holborn Viaduct and Tower Bridge in the city, and Rosebery Avenue and Clerkenwell Road to the north carried passengers along airy platforms away from the soot and grime. Charles Holden, of Piccadilly line station fame, and planner William Holford came up with a blueprint for rebuilding post-war London's financial centre in May '47; it included an eye-catching chapter called Pedestrian Ways which were to be "as fit for the traffic it carries as any of the main streets."  Soon plans were drawn up for the Barbican and Paternoster Square developments which included towers, podiums and walkways, a modernist way around plot ratio and daylighting controls. The City Of London Corporation, usually the most conservative of bodies, was very taken. By 1965 an obscure corporation document, sinisterly named Drawing 3400B, made specific mention of the 'Pedway' for the first time - a thirty mile network from Liverpool Street to the Thames, from Fleet Street to the Tower. Within a couple of years, developers had to provide walkways - dedicated public rights of way -  as a condition for planning consent. The future would be created by stealth, without the public knowing.

Straight away, the Pedway encountered problems. The fire brigade was struggling to find equipment suitable for the walkways having experimented unsuccessfully with some Austrian appliances. The police were unsure of their legal powers on the Pedway. Maintenance, cleaning and lighting bills for the corporation soared.

The biggest, and ultimately insurmountable, problem for the Pedway was the growth of the conservation lobby. Ironically, its seat of power was in the Barbican development, and its activists the very occupants of the one successfully completed network of "highwalks." They didn't object to the Pedway system itself (they hardly could when they weren't aware of its existence), but the networks of service roads and loading bays springing up at street level in anticipation of its completion.  In 1971 eight conservation areas were devised for the city, a number which grew until the mid eighties when, scared of business emigrating to the Docklands, the city's conservation gave way to rampant redevelopment. Even air rights were sold - Terry Farrell's clunky Albangate scheme obliterated the spaciousness of London Wall, another Pedway jigsaw piece.

Tracing the remaining parts of the Pedway today is surprisingly easy, in spite of the City's mania for security. Large stretches of the 1976 minimum network - when the idea was largely abandoned - remain. Starting at Barbican station, the only listed part of the Pedway network takes you past the flats on Seddon Highwalk to the Museum Of London. The point at which concrete walls give way to tiles delineates the border of the listed area and the London Wall development. Passing through Albangate you reach a 1969 adjunct to the Pedway plan: kiosks, built to encourage pedestrians off the streets and onto the walkways. A green marble building - now the Young Bin restaurant - was originally a Midland Bank; nearby is a row of tailor's shops and an empty pub with the telltale name The Podium. The trail runs cold at Moorgate, though until this year grey/brown abutments for a never-built bridge left a curious hole  above the station; the building was recently demolished. Bridges across Wormwood Street lead to amazing alleys that weave in and out of office blocks - all public space. But it's disappearing fast. Other Pedway pieces survive on Upper Thames Street, Leadenhall Street and around the stock exchange - now fenced off for security reasons. Gradually, chunks are disappearing as the building stock of the sixties is replaced.
The remaining Pedway provides a fair idea of how it could have worked. It is surprisingly bright with a great sense of space in the most densely built-up part of the city, especially when you consider private developers constructed most of it against their will. The air on the walkways is noticeably cleaner, too. Only the semi-abandoned stairwells feel claustrophobic.

How the walkways would have worked in other parts of London is more questionable (in 1967 the plan was expanded as far west as Soho and south to Elephant and Castle), and the planners' dreams of wholesale demolition and a pedestrian network to rival the quays of Paris now seems faintly embarrassing. Chicago and Hong Kong may have completed the job with marble, steel and glass: the London Pedway exists only as a concrete folly.

first photo copyright
second photo copyright Smoke: A London Peculiar
many thanks to Elain Harwood


  1. I discovered the Pedway by accident looking for a short cut from Moorgate to Holborn... it felt like stepping back in time (to that nostalgic vision of the future). If only the pub had been open for a pale ale and some Roy Budd on the juke box...

  2. Perhaps we could use jump jets to get around instead? Except that today I learn that we have sold our last 74 to the Americans who intend to keep them in service until the 2020s - exactly the same time when the UK will have two aircraft carriers and no aircraft to fly from them. A common theme perhaps?

  3. There was a similar plan for Liverpool, with first floor walkways intended to carry people round the streets. Again, very little survives; the most notable example is Moorfields underground station, which has its ticket hall up a flight of escalators from the street. It's a good concept in theory, but I've found the walkways round the Barbican chilling and strangely intimidating.

  4. That's one for the Preservation Society!It's an interesting area and that spot on London Wall seems to feature in innumerable 60's films. The Dudley Sutton, Roger Moore chase in "Crossplot" is my favourite. I worked nearby at the School of Nursing for 11 years and spent many a happy winter lunchtime wandering round the Pedway. This was before the tinnitus kicked in and looking back I seemed to spend a lot of time wandering about listening to Georges Delerue on headphones - pretending I was in Godard's "Alphaville". By the way I was there that night at the Barbican when you introduced Roy Harper before the showing of "Made". Anyway in time honoured tradition check out my blog -

  5. The pedway reminds me of New York's High Line. I wonder if anyone has thought of beatifying the pedway to that extent?

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