Thursday, 26 September 2013

Simply the Most Fascinating Building In Whitehall

Here's David, our man in Whitehall…


The posts. The columns. They could – almost – be ship’s cannon. Four pounders. And 12 pounders.

It’s the Admiralty.

By my lights the most interesting building in Whitehall.

The most interesting building in Whitehall – and nobody, tourists as well as Londoners, ever sees it.

Really sees it. Properly sees it.

It gets drowned out in the gadarene rush to Downing Street. Or the Horse Guards. Or the Banqueting House.

There’s a lot you can “do” with this building. Gonna keep most of my powder dry. Mention just a couple of things by way of an appetizer.

That black flag. It’s not a flag. It never hangs limply. It’s metal. It’s a weather vane. The prevailing winds “position” it. And what it’s connected to. The “indicator” down in the Map Room. Where the gold braid conferred. And decided.

Which way’s the wind blowing? What direction does the Fleet take?

Or that black “pole” coming out of the green dome. It’s  a Marconi mast. Flashed radio signals to the Fleet. It replaced telegraph wires.

The telegraph wires replaced the hand-worked semaphore.

And so we come to it. The semaphore on the roof of the Admiralty.  Straight out of Nelson’s era. It would send a signal to the next station in St. George’s Fields. St. George’s Fields would pass it on to the next hill top station. And on and on to the cliff’s edge and ultimately to the quarter-deck.

Or the Portsmouth route. The roof of the Admiralty to Chelsea to Putney to Kingston to Cooper’s Hill to Chately Hill to five other hills to Compton Down to Portsdown Hill to Southsea Beach to the tower in High Street, Portsmouth.

Portsmouth is 57 miles from London. That hand-worked semaphore system got that message to Portsmouth in less than a minute.

And you say, but it was in full view of everybody. What if an enemy agent – a Continental spy – saw it?

Yeah. What if he did?

Byron died in Missolonghi in Greece on April 19, 1824. The news of his death didn’t reach London until May 14.


What’s that enemy agent going to do? Send a letter? Put up smoke signals?




A London Walk costs £9 – £7 concession. To join a London Walk, simply meet your guide at the designated tube station at the appointed time. Details of all London Walks can be found at www.walks.com.

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