THE PIGEON PILGRIMAGE
Lemonwell Drive SE9
The Tyton Elevator Company built its headquarters on London silkstone, at the bottom of a natural dell on the fringes of Greenwich, three and a half miles away from the river Thames. At the time the bowl-like depression was traversed by a muddy lane known as Drowner’s Mile on account of it being significantly below sea level, and so prone to flooding that it was once considered as a site for an inland dock or an open reservoir.
In 1923, Tyton’s original plans to build their 14-storey head office in Clerkenwell, had fallen foul of planning application laws and concerns that the tower would interfere with the skyline, drawing eyes away from Saint Paul’s Cathedral. The low-lying Greenwich site was proposed as a compromise, allowing the architects to keep to their original design, while the uppermost floors of the tower would reside at the same altitude as houses only a few streets away. The company founder - George Wormersley - claimed in retrospect that the location had been chosen deliberately to reflect Tyton’s intention to bring the common man to eye-level with the heavens.
In its day Tyton installed elevators in buildings across London with it’s penthouse omnibus propelling the well-heeled classes into the rarefied upper atmosphere of the Capital. The company became renowned for its ambitious bespoke projects, such as the corkscrew lift in the Templemen Hotel. Its most famous installations were to be found in the earliest London skyscrapers - The famous High Seven of Marylebone, which were constructed simultaneously in the 1930s, with the tallest standing 123 metres. Only two remain today - The Hatpin (home to Haftler Nylons) and The Sailorboard. Neither building retains its original elevator system.
In the 1950s, Tyton became locked in the equivalent of a space race with its chief rival - The Garde-robe de Vol elevator company from Paris. The Ascent of Everest competition drew both companies into an undignified battle, as each competed to amass enough cumulative metres of functioning elevator to surpass the height of the world’s tallest mountain. Ultimately it was a race that neither company won, although it was Garde-robe de Vol that came closest, reaching to within a couple of 100 metres of the 8848 metre target, before being declared bankrupt in 1957. A year later Tyton followed them into receivership.
The quality of Tyton’s work meant even their elevator systems were often removed from buildings prior to demolition and re-installed elsewhere. Many were transported abroad where they were often fitted into established properties with varying levels of success.
Today the Tyton Building is a residential property. In common with the surviving Thames-side warehouses, its exterior retains the lettering and architectural features that advertise its former purpose. The interior of the building is also listed, protecting it against superfluous renovation. Instead of being given numbers, the individual apartments are named after the offices of former staff members at the long-defunct company.
David Pasterfield rents a spacious flat on the 13th floor called ‘The Boardroom’. A white sofa and a large flatscreen television occupy part of the living area where there once stood a table bearing a relief map of the capital, with brass pins representing the locations and relative heights of the elevators installed by the company. David has seen a black and white photograph of it in a book on London history and has ordered a print which he plans to frame and hang on the wall.
The stairs of the Tyton building were made from Portmans marble. Decades of feet coming and going have worn away the bottom flights. The steps are slippery underfoot, bowed slightly at the centre and slope downwards at their edges. Their condition draws regular complaints from the tenants and the provisional cost of repair is a source of friction with the building’s owners.
David takes the well-maintained elevator down to the ground floor. The control panel is an etched brass plaque in the shape of the Tyton logo - A barn owl - with two columns of small, well-oiled levers protruding from slots in its body. The car glides so smoothly, it barely feels like it is moving at all.
Outside on the stoop an amorous male pigeon is making puffed-up advances on a female, moving with the bobbing forward momentum of a mechanical Victorian toy. It’s quarry hurries away taking small rapid steps, as if on the verge of breaking into a run. Both of the birds infuse the surrounding air with a brilliant yellow glow that intensifies the closer they are to each other.
The unrelenting cooing of the male pigeon annoys David. He idly kicks in its direction until both birds take flight and resume their courtship a few feet away on the pavement. He pauses on the steps to read a text message from his girlfriend. Above his head the sun illuminates a thin layer of dirt on the glass face of a round clock, fastened to the wall of the building by an ornate metal bracket, its big hand counting down the final few minutes of his life.
As David climbs the steep hill of Lemonwell Drive, he thinks about Nuria. The first thing that comes to mind is the pair of them standing in line at the Forbidden Planet comic book store, his girlfriend making catty comments about a life-sized cardboard standee of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, comparing the actress Sarah Michelle Geller to a rat.
His mind wanders to a different comic shop that they visited later on the same day. Holding hands in front of a shelving unit crammed full of graphic novels, he said: “I’m making you a goddess in my comic. Do you want to be a good goddess or an evil goddess?”
Where Lemonwell Drive starts to flatten out there is a unremarkable red brick arcade composed of eight small retail units: At the far end a restaurant offers “Steak and Fish, Chicken and Ribs”. Next to it, a place he’s never been to, advertises Korean-style barbecue. The sheltered area in front of the property has been sectioned-off with a white plastic picket fence, the space in-between carpeted in bristly, bright-green Astroturf. Inside there’s a photocopier and some scattered plastic garden furniture; no indication that food is prepared or served on the premises. A pair of glowing male pigeons strut along the border of the artificial grass, vying for the affections of a reluctant female.
As David reaches the junction at the end of the road, he feels his phone vibrate in his pocket. It’s Nuria again, texting to say that she is leaving the house now and will see him soon.
Gazing down at her message he steps off the curb and into Bexley Road...
CONTINUES ON THURSDAY...Greenhill Rents EC1