Day 33 (part 2) – The Strand -Covent Garden -Savoy Place

So the second leg of this walk resumes where we left off last time, on the Strand by the Adelphi Theatre, then heads north towards Covent Garden before crossing back over the Strand to traverse the streets either side of the Savoy Hotel and running down to the Embankment.

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The origins of the Adelphi Theatre go back to 1806 when it was originally known as the Sans Pareil (without equal). The current, fourth building on the site, has been around since 1930 when it was constructed by the Pitcher Construction Company to the designs of Ernest Schaufelberg. The design was notable for the absence of any kind of curve (unusual for the thirties) and the building process attracted a great deal of public attention due to the builders frantic attempts to complete on time and avoid a punitive daily over-run penalty of £450. The venue has been home to a good number of successful productions, several of them off the Lloyd-Webber conveyer belt.

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Just a few doors further east stands the Vaudeville Theatre of which the present building is the third incarnation, opening in 1926. It has less then half the capacity of its near neighbour and therefore tends to present comedies and straight drama rather than musicals. Though it did play host to part of a then record-breaking run by the musical Salad Days in the 1950’s (a 1996 revival was rather less successful, reflecting changing tastes). Dance/performance art troupe Stomp had a five year residency here from 2002.

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Turn north up Southampton Street where in the 1870’s Vincent Van Gogh worked in the London offices of the French art dealers, Groupil et Cie, commuting from lodgings in Brixton. This clock, outside no.3, was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens in 1904 for George Newnes Limited, the publishers of such periodicals as John O’London’s Weekly and the Ladies’ Home Magazine.

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Turning left back onto Maiden Lane we find the rear of the Vaudeville Theatre which houses the Hungarian Cultural Centre (not looking particularly active it’s fair to say). 150 years before there was any theatre here the French philosopher Voltaire (1694 – 1778) spent a year living in the house that then occupied this spot – he had gone into self-imposed exile as an alternative to imprisonment in the Bastille at the instigation of the aristoctratic de Rohan family with whom he had fallen into confrontation.

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Across the road is, reputedly, the oldest restaurant in London, Rules, which was founded in 1798 by Thomas Rule to purvey “porter, pies and oysters” to a clientele of “rakes, dandies and superior intelligence’s”. Since then, it appears, just about anyone who is anyone in the literary and entertainment worlds has passed through its doors. And the menu would probably still look pretty familiar to the rakes and dandies of the Regency era.

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Retrace our steps up Bedford Street then head east towards Covent Garden plaza along Henrietta Street. Another green plaque here, this one in commemoration of the fact that Jane Austen stayed at no. 10 during 1813-14.

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Turn back down Southampton Street then left into Tavistock Street followed by a right down Burleigh Street. Squashed in between more modern buildings is the former vicarage of St Michael’s Church, dating from around 1860 and now the rectory of St Paul’s (see above). St Michael’s itself was built in 1833 on the corner with Exeter Street but demolished in 1906.

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Exeter Street runs along the back of the Strand Palace Hotel which was built in 1907 by J.Lyons & Co. to cater for those who wanted  “the maximum of luxury and comfort with the minimum of expense.” To which end they charged 5 shillings and sixpence (27p in new money) for a single room with breakfast. Even today the room rates represent pretty good value for central London. Unfortunately I am unable to unearth any information about the decoration on the bridge across the street or the clock on the rear facade of what is currently the HQ of the nuclear industry association.

Turning the corner brings us back out on to the Strand opposite a somewhat more famous hotel, the Savoy, built by Richard D’Oyly Carte – the man who brought the operas of Gilbert and Sullivan to the world – and opened in 1889. The Savoy was the first luxury hotel in Britain, with electric lights, electric lifts, en-suite bathrooms and constant hot and cold running water among its innovations. The name derives from the historic region of France (which today spreads into part of Italy and Switzerland as well) and specifically Count Peter of Savoy who was the maternal uncle of Eleanor of Provence, wife of Henry III, and accompanied her to England. Henry made Peter Earl of Richmond and gave him the land which lies between the Strand and the Thames where he built the Savoy Palace in 1263.

When D’Oyly Carte’s daughter Bridget died childless in in 1985 ownership of the hotel fell into corporate hands ending up as part of the Fairmont Hotels estate some twenty years later. I’m sure you won’t be at all surprised to learn that Fairmont Hotels is affiliated with one of the members of the Saudi Royal Family. In 2007 the Savoy closed for a complete renovation, budgeted at £100 million but ultimately costing more than twice that amount. Judging by the reviews when it reopened in 2010 the expense seems to have been worth it with the new Edwardian decor on the Thames’ side and the Art Deco stylings on the Strand side earning lavish praise. FYI – to stay in one of its 267 rooms for the night will give you enough change out of £500 for a couple of beers (though not here) and that doesn’t include breakfast.

We continue east along the Strand past the front of the Strand Palace then head south down Savoy Street which offers us our first glimpse of the river before we turn right onto Savoy Hill and then right again up Savoy Steps. In so doing we encircle the Queen’s Chapel of the Savoy. The palace of Peter of Savoy lasted barely a hundred years before being superseded by an even grander palace built by John of Gaunt who had gained control of the land via inheritance of his wife, Blanche (great-great-granddaughter of Henry III). That one had an even briefer lifespan, being burnt to the ground during the peasants’ revolt of 1381 led by Wat Tyler. The site remained semi-derelict until, at the beginning of the 16th century, King Henry VII ordered the building of a foundation hospital which included three chapels, dedicated to St John the Baptist, St Catherine and Our Lady respectively. The first of these, now known as the Queen’s Chapel, is the sole building that survives.

Continuing back down Savoy Hill towards the Embankment and then turning left onto Savoy Place we arrive outside the HQ of the Institution of Engineering and Technology (or just IET as it prefers to call itself) which has an impressive 167,000 members in 150 countries. There’s a statue of our old friend Michael Faraday (1791 – 1867) outside and a suitably tech-inspired art installation in the lobby. A carved inscription on the facade of the building notes the fact that this was the original central London home of the BBC from 1923 to 1932 (when Broadcasting house opened).

We next head back west along Savoy Place then turn north up Carting Lane which runs up to the back of the Savoy Theatre. D’Oyly Carte built the first theatre here in 1881 eight years prior to putting up the hotel on the adjacent lot. A green plaque on the back wall commemorates the fact that that original theatre was the first public building in the world with electric lighting. The building was reconstructed at the end of the twenties and the new Savoy Theatre opened in October 1929 with a production of The Gondoliers (of course). Then in 1990 during another renovation the building was almost completely gutted by fire. Against expectation it arose, Pheonix-like, from the ashes just three years later with an extra storey housing, inter alia, a swimming pool above the stage.

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A few steps further on we reach the Coal Hole, another old haunt of mine, which is rumored to occupy what was the coal cellar for the Savoy Hotel in its early years. The pub is Grade II listed but despite its proximity to the Savoy Hotel is no longer part of it.

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Turning left along the Strand again we pass another green plaque; this one honouring the fact that the Royal Air Force had its original headquarters in the Hotel Cecil, which then stood on this plot on the Strand, from 1918 to 1919.

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Turn south again down Adam Street where at no.8 there is a blue plaque celebrating one of the pioneers of the industrial revolution, Sir Richard Arkwright (1732 – 1792). Arkwright was not, as I erroneously recalled from schooldays, the inventor of the spinning jenny. The patents which brought him his fortune were the spinning frame (later re-dubbed the water frame) and the rotary carding  engine that transformed raw cotton into cotton lap. His factories employed a high percentage of children (aged 7 and up) and although he allowed employees a week’s holiday a year they were not allowed to leave the village in which he housed them. When he died aged 59 that fortune was worth £500,000 (which apparently is only equivalent to about £68m today).

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Adam Street leads down to Adelphi Terrace which runs along the rear of the Grade II listed Adelphi. The construction of this purpose-built office building, 1936-8, by Stanley Hamp of Colcutt and Hamp required an act of Parliament (the Adelphi Act of 1933) due to the covenants on the site imposed by a statute of 1771 relating to the original development of the area by John, Robert, James and William Adam from 1772 (Adelphoi is Greek for brothers). The Act gave permission for the demolition of 24 Georgian houses built by the Adams, as well as placing conditions on the height of the new building and requiring the developers to maintain and widen public thoroughfares. Although it sparked controversy at the time of its erection the Adelphi is now regarded as one of London’s premier Art Deco buildings. The four giant allegorical relief figures on the corners of the Embankment front representing west-east are ‘Dawn’ (by Bainbridge Copnall), ‘Contemplation’ (by Arthur J Ayres), ‘Inspiration’ (by Gilbert Ledward), and ‘Night’ (by Donald Gilbert). Turning north up Roberts Street and right onto John Adam Street brings us to the front entrance with its carved reveal panels by Newbury Abbot Trent depicting scenes of industry. However there seems to be some confusion as to whether the building represents 1-10 John Adam Street or 1-11 (perhaps it’s a subtle tribute to Spinal Tap).

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Across the road is the home of The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce which, I have to confess, I had never heard of before. The RSA was founded in 1754  by William Shipley (1715 – 1803) with the central credo that the creativity of ideas could enrich social progress. The first meeting was held at Rawthmell’s Coffee House in Covent Garden. Fellows of the RSA over the years have included Samuel Johnson, Benjamin Franklin and William Hogarth. Their current mission statement reads “We believe that all human beings have creative capacities that, when understood and supported, can be mobilised to deliver a 21st century enlightenment.” Amen to that.

The house itself is a survivor of the development by the Adam Brothers in the 1770’s and it’s our final port of call on today’s journey.

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Day 30 Pt2 – Drury Lane – Covent Garden

Bit of a summer recess but finally we’re back with the second leg of the tour of Covent Garden and its environs. Picking up where we left off at the upper end of Drury Lane we circle east and back through the densest concentration of theatreland then loop round the Royal Opera House and into the piazza itself.

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To start we head down Drury Lane then turn left along Kemble Street back up Wild Street and cut through to Kingsway via Keeley Street. Double back down Kemble Street then take Kean Street to return to the bottom stretch of Drury Lane. Move straight on down Tavistock Street and into Catherine Street where there are theatres every way you look . The Duchess Theatre  dates from 1929 and has the dubious honour of playing host to the world’s shortest theatrical run. On the 11th March 1930 a show called The Intimate Review opened and closed on the same night. Current production is The Play That Goes Wrong whose popularity completely eludes me – the concept is lame enough but the fact that they had to fully disclose it in the title speaks volumes about the deemed intelligence of the average West End theatregoer. It’s as if Shakespeare had called Hamlet the Play In Which Everyone Dies.

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Turning westward along Exeter Street and into Wellington Street we reach the Lyceum Theatre. The Lyceum has a long and interesting history going back to the 18th century. The grand portico you see below survives from the 1834 designs of Samuel Beazley but the rest of the building was fully reconstructed in 1904. In 1939 the building was bought by the London County Council who planned to demolish it but that was put on ice due to the onset of war and in 1945 it was acquired by Matthews and Sons who converted it into the Lyceum Ballroom. During its years as a dancehall it also played host to the Miss World Contest (from 1951 to 1968) then from the late sixties onward it became one of London’s foremost pop and rock concert venues. Bob Marley and the Wailers recorded a 1975 live album at the Lyceum and during the heyday of punk all of the most successful bands played there. By 1986 however it had run its course as a live music venue and the building fell dark for ten years before being reconverted for theatrical use. In 1999 The Lion King opened and looks like it will stay here until every single living soul has succumbed to see it (may I be the last).

 

Keep going west on Exeter Street then turn right up Burleigh Street and head back east on Tavistock Street to Catherine Street again and switching northward pass the front entrance to the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. Four theatres have been built on this site, the first of these by the dramatist Thomas Killigrew under charter granted by Charles II in 1663. The present theatre was built in 1812 to a design of Benjamin Wyatt. In its early years it became synonymous with the success of the Shakespearean actor, Edmund Kean (after whom the nearby street is named of course). During WWII the theatre was used as the headquarters of ENSA. In the post-war period Drury Lane’s notable successes have included a five year run of My Fair Lady with Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews and Miss Saigon which ran for ten years. The Monty Python team recorded a live album here in 1974. The bust outside the theatre is of Augustus Harris who was its manager in the latter part of the 19th century and known as “the father of modern pantomime”.

Just around the corner on Russell Street is the somewhat more understated Fortune Theatre, built in 1922-24 in the Italianate style. It was the first theatre to be built in London after the end of the WW1 and since the demolition of the original Wembley Stadium is now the oldest remaining public building designed wholly using concrete as a textured and exposed façade. The theatre’s famous figurine, Terpsichore, overlooking the entrance, was sculpted by M. H. Crichton of the Bromsgrove Guild, a noted company of artisans from Worcestershire. The supernatural thriller, The Woman in Black, has been playing here since 1989 which means it must have been seen by over half a million people even though this is the second smallest theatre in the West End.

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As you can see in the picture above, the theatre, rather incongruously, incorporates an entrance to the next door Crown Court Church of Scotland. The Church of Scotland has been active in London since time of James I (originally James VI of Scotland of course). It took up residence here in Covent Garden from 1719 though the present building only dates back to 1909. Rather confusingly the name of the church implies no kind of legal jurisdiction but simply references the thoroughfare on which it sits, Crown Court, which is where we turn next.

At the top of Crown Court we turn left into Broad Court which brings us out on to Bow Street right by the eponymous magistrates’ court. The original Bow Street court was established in 1740 across the road on what is now the site of the Royal Opera House. A few years later the author Henry Fielding took charge of the court in his capacity as London’s Chief Magistrate. The extant building was completed in 1881 and among the famous and infamous names to have occupied its dock are such as Oscar Wilde, Dr Crippen, the Kray twins, the Pankhurst sisters, Jeffrey Archer and General Pinochet (some dinner party that would be). However the final session at what had become the most well-known magistrates’ court in Britain (if not the world) took place in 2006. The Grade II listed building, put up for sale by its joint owners, the Greater London Magistrates’ Courts Authority and the Metropolitan Police Authority, was originally acquired by a property developer, Gerry Barrett, who had intended to turn it into a boutique hotel. His plans never came to fruition and in 2008 it was sold on to Austrian developers, the Ploberger brothers, who hoped to retain the police cells and create a World Police Museum (alongside a boutique hotel). However, having finally obtained planning permission in 2014, the brothers in turn decided to sell on just a year later – at a price tag of £75m.

That brings us on to the Royal Opera House which as already noted is across the road, occupying the whole of the north-east section of Covent Garden. This site has been occupied by three theatre buildings and has witnessed opera and ballet performances since the 1730’s. The current building (the first two were both destroyed by fire) was opened in 1858 having been built by the Lucas Brothers Company (who were also responsible for the Royal Albert Hall). At that time it was known as the Covent Garden Opera House. It was only after WW2, during which it had been used as a dancehall, that the building became the permanent home of the companies now called the The Royal Opera and the Royal Ballet. In 1997 the building closed for a thirty month major redevelopment at a cost of over £200m. The Royal Opera Company curently performs an annual repertoire of around twenty operas here amounting to 150 separate shows.

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We finally head towards the piazza itself along the western stretch of Russell Street which bears a plaque commemorating the first meeting of Dr Samuel Johnson and James Boswell in 1763.

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As anyone born in the 20th century should know, Covent Garden was originally London’s main fruit and vegetable market. The earliest recorded market on the site dates back to 1654, a time when the land was part of the estate of the Russell family a.k.a the Earls and then the Dukes of Bedford. It wasn’t long (1670) before the incumbent Earl of Bedford acquired a private charter from Charles II  for a permanent fruit and vegetable market, permitting him and his heirs to hold a market every day except Sundays and Christmas Day.  Unfortunately, the presence of the market led to the area becoming increasingly insalubrious and by the 18th century it had descended into a fully-fledged red light district attracting such notable prostitutes as (the brilliantly-named) Betty Careless. Descriptions of the prostitutes and where to find them were provided by Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies, the “essential guide and accessory for any serious gentleman of pleasure”. In 1830, in an attempt to improve the image of the area, the 6th Earl commissioned Charles Fowler to design the neo-classical market building that remains at the heart of Covent Garden today. The Floral hall and the Charter Market were added later and in 1904 the Jubilee Market for foreign flowers was created. The Covent Garden Estate passed out of the hands of the Bedfords in 1913 when the 11th Duke sold out to the first in a series of property investors. Then in 1962 the bulk of the remaining properties in the area, including the market, were sold to the newly established government-owned Covent Garden Authority for £3,925,000. By the end of the 1960s however, traffic congestion had reached such a level that the use of the square as a modern wholesale distribution market had become untenable, and significant redevelopment was planned. Following a public outcry, buildings around the square were protected in 1973, preventing redevelopment. The following year the market moved to a new site in south-west London while the square lay idle until its central building was eventually rejuvenated in 1980 as a retail mall with a bias toward independent traders and artisans. In the picture below you can just about still make out the inscription commemorating the building’s origin.

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These days of course, Covent Garden is a serious tourist magnet fueled by the presence of myriad street performers and artists as well as the ubiquitous “living statues”.

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In the background of a couple of the above slides you can see St Paul’s Church which was completed in 1633 having been designed by Inigo Jones. It was the first entirely new church to be built in England since the Reformation. It is also commonly referred to as “The Actors’ Church” due to its associations with the theatrical community. Since 2007 it has been home to its own in-house professional theatre company, Iris Theatre – currently staging a production of Treasure Island. Opposite the church is the Punch and Judy pub – default reunion destination for generations of students since the 1980s.

As we circle back round the north side of the square we pass the new flagship store for Brazilian footwear brand Melissa which occupies 43 King Street a.k.a Russell House, a Grade II listed building from 1716, making it the oldest survivor in the piazza. It was designed by the Baroque architect Thomas Archer as a townhouse for Lord Russell, First Lord of the Admiralty at the time. Between 1891 and 1929 it was also home to the National Sporting Club, the organisation responsible for the creation of the sport of glove boxing, under its president Hugh Cecil Lowther, the fifth earl of Lonsdale (after whom the Lonsdale belt is named). This is testified by the green plaque outside the building.

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Just round the corner from here is a shrine to the modern-day religion of techno-worship in the form of the Apple Store. Been a while since I was last in here and I had forgotten just how massive it is inside.

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Head away from the square up James Street, which is where the “living statues” ply their trade (see slideshow above), then veer right down Floral Street which flanks the north side of the ROH. In doing so we pass beneath the “Bridge of Aspiration” which links the Royal Ballet School to the ROH.

Emerge out onto Bow Street again and turn north to reach Long Acre where we head west past the tube station. Covent Garden station is notorious for two things – firstly for being party to the shortest distance between any two adjacent stations on the London underground network, Leicester Square is a mere 20 second journey, and secondly for the overcrowding (if you eschew the wait for a lift it’s 193 steps up the stairs to reach the surface). For both these reasons TFL go to great lengths to try to discourage anyone from using the station at all.

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This is the view from James Street which was a better shot 

Moving swiftly on we duck down Langley Court on to another section of Floral Street and continue west. Loop round Rose Street, Long Acre again and Garrick Street to get back to Floral Street. At no.15 Garrick Street is the Garrick Club, founded in 1831 by a group of literary gentlemen under the patronage of the Duke of Sussex, brother of King William IV, and named after the 18th century actor, David Garrick. Today this private members’ club has around 1,300 members and anyone wishing to join has to overcome the credo “that it would be better that ten unobjectionable men should be excluded than one terrible bore should be admitted”.

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I can only assume that the Garrick Club has some kind of status in the Far East that has escaped me up until now.

Lazenby Court and the southern dog-leg of Rose Street surround the Lamb and Flag pub, one of the most historic and well-known hostelries in London. The very first mention of a pub on this site dates from 1772, when it was known as The Coopers Arms (the name changed to The Lamb & Flag in 1833). The pub acquired a reputation in the early nineteenth century for staging bare-knuckle prize fights earning it the nickname ‘The Bucket of Blood,’ and the alleyway beside the pub (see below) was the scene of an attack on the poet John Dryden in 1679 by thugs hired by John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, with whom he had a long-standing conflict.

We return to the square along King Street then go back past the church and along the southern side of the arcade. On the building at the south-west corner you can still just about make out the lettering advertising this as the one-time premises of Butler’s Medicinal Herb warehouse.

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The south-east corner of the square is occupied by the London Transport Museum (which I may or may not return to but with an hour until closing was reluctant to part with £17 on this occasion). Doubling back along Henrietta Street we pass the modern incarnation of the Jubilee Hall where general tat has now replaced the foreign flowers of yesteryear.

Arrive back at Garrick Street and complete the circle bringing today’s epic to a close. If you made it all the way here I salute you.

 

 

 

Day 30 Pt1 – Seven Dials – Neal Street – Long Acre

Today’s jaunt starts out at Leicester Square tube and ticks off all of the streets that radiate out from Seven Dials before looping eastward round the back of the Royal Opera House and circumnavigating the tourist inferno that is Covent Garden piazza. Passing just the odd theatre or two along the way. A wealth of material to cover on this trip so it’s another one split into two posts.

Day 30 Route

First up is Cranbourn Street then a return to Charing Cross Road via Great Newport Street. Here at nos. 10-11 is a green plaque marking the fact that this was home to trad jazzman Ken Colyer‘s Studio 51 basement jazz club in the Fifties. Not quite as wild as Studio 54 but the concept of the all-nighter did probably take root here for the first time as far as the UK is concerned.

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Charing Cross Road has historically been known for its second-hand and antiquarian bookshops. Fortunately there are still a few of these hanging on, though no.84 which inspired an eponymous book of 1970 that was made into a 1987 film starring Anthony Hopkins and Anne Bancroft hasn’t housed a bookshop since the late sixties. It’s now a MacDonald’s.

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Turning right down Litchfield Street brings us to St Martin’s Theatre which has been home to The Mousetrap for the last 42 years of its record-breaking 64 year unbroken run on the West End stage. It first became the longest-running show in British theatre history as early as 1958. During its entire run 442 actors and actresses have appeared in the play, there have been 256 understudies (including one 15 year stint), 142 miles of shirts have been ironed and over 500 tons of ice cream sold. Of course the ending of the play is the worst kept secret in the world of stage – everybody knows that the big red plastic colander thing falls on top of the mouse.

Just opposite the theatre is The Ivy, a restaurant that has long been something of a cliché as a lunchtime rendezvous for luvvies and their agents. The Ivy was created in 1917 by Abel Gandolini and Mario Gallati and the name was inspired by actress Alice Delysia who, quoting a popular song of the day, told the pair “Don’t worry, we will always come to see you, we will cling together like the ivy” when Gandolini’s original cafe closed for work to begin on the new venture.

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Next we head up to Shaftesbury Avenue via West Street passing another theatre, the Ambassadors, en route. This one has been around since 1913 and played host to The Mousetrap for the first 21 years of its run up to 1973 when it moved a few yards down the street. The aforementioned French actress and singer, Alice Delysia (1889 – 1979) appeared in revue here regularly during the WW1 years and the theatre later witnessed the stage debuts of both Ivor Novello and Vivien Leigh.

Turn briefly on to Earlham Street then fork right down Tower Street and when this merges into Monmouth Street head north up the latter for the first of several visits to Seven Dials.

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As its name implies, Seven Dials is the hub of seven different streets and was the brainchild of Thomas Neale, MP in the early 1690s. He devised the idea of laying out the area in a series of triangles to maximise the number of houses; as rentals were charged per foot of frontage and not per square foot of interiors. Neale commissioned England’s leading stonemason, Edward Pierce, to design and construct the Sundial Pillar you see above as the centrepiece of his development. Unfortunately for Neale the area didn’t become the fashionable address he had hoped for and rapidly degenerated into a slum renowned for its gin houses. At one time each of the seven apexes facing the monument housed a pub and all their basements were connected for ease of escape in the event of a raid. Sadly, only the 19th century Crown (see above) remains.

Back along Earlham Street then continue north-east along Shaftesbury Avenue past the Chinese Church in London which was born out of a prayer meeting of Chinese Christians held on Christmas Eve 1950.

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Return to Seven Dials via Mercer Street and arrive opposite the Cambridge Theatre ( I did warn you). This is one of a number of theatres that opened in 1930 and had an original capacity of 1,275. It has had something of a chequered history including a couple of stints as a cinema and an ill-fated 1984 reinvention as a soi-disant Theatre of Magic called the Magic Castle which lasted just a year. The current production of Matilda, which has been here since 2011, and its predecessor, Chicago, which ran for eight years represent a welcome upturn in fortune.

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Head back north on the upper stretch of Monmouth Street stopping en route to visit Neal’s Yard, named after the aforementioned Thomas, which has been the home of alternative medicine, occultism and astrologers, attracted by the sundial and the symbolic star layout of the streets,since the 17th Century. Not very well hidden in the bottom right picture below are at least six signifiers of poncey Metropolitanism that will have anyone living north of Watford Gap frothing at the mouth.

Swing right into Neal Street and half way down turn right again down Shorts Gardens and find ourselves back at Seven Dials. This time we leave by the eastern section of Earlham Street (roughly 3 0’clock on the dial) which is where you’ll find a theatre of a different stamp in the Donmar Warehouse. The Donmar is a 252 seat not-for-profit theatre that has been staging innovative and much-acclaimed productions of both classic and contemporary plays for the last 24 years. Despite its size it’s attracted stars like Nicole Kidman (The Blue Room), Jude Law (Hamlet) and Tom Hiddleston (Coriolanus) to tread its boards over the past decade.

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Emerge onto Endell Street by the Cross Keys pub which was mentioned a few posts ago. This time I pop in for a quick half and have to endure the blaring of some new London-based golden oldies radio station. Christ knows why these things are so popular – in the Seventies we weren’t subjected to non-stop segues of forty-year old Gracie Fields and George Formby records in the way that Billy Joel and Queen are forever polluting the airwaves of today.

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Across the road is the building where the firm of Lavers, Barraud and Westlake produced stained glass windows between 1855 and 1921.

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Return westward next along Shelton Street and make a quick detour up and down Nottingham Court before resuming as far as the bottom of the middle section of Mercer Street and nipping up this to get back to Seven Dials for one final time. From here it’s back down Monmouth Street which morphs into Upper St Martin’s Lane before hitting Long Acre. Heading east here we pass across the road from Stanfords, the self-proclaimed premier map and travel bookshop in the world, which has been trading from this site since the start of the last century. In 1941, during one of the biggest raids on the capital, Stanfords was hit by an incendiary bomb which all but destroyed the top two floors of the building. However, the thousands of Ordnance Survey maps stocked by the shop in tightly constructed stacks helped halt the path of the flames and saved the rest of the shop from destruction. Subsequently, in a business move which his grandfather, the founder of the company, would have been proud of, Fraser Stanford continued to sell these maps withe their charred edges for years afterwards.

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Next up we loop round Slingsby Place back to Shelton Street then turn south again on the bottom stretch of Mercer Street back to Long Acre. From this point we traverse between Long Acre and Shelton Street using Langley Street, the lower part of Neal Street and Oddhams Walk before continuing east along Long Acre as far as the top of Drury Lane which is where we’ll leave things for now…

 

 

Day 26 – St Giles – Shaftesbury Avenue – Drury Lane – Denmark Street

Another brief one in terms of distance but a lot of stuff to pack in nonetheless. Area covered is split into two main sections; firstly the territory to the north of Covent Garden in between Long Acre and High Holborn and then the streets squeezed into the angle formed by the eastern side of Charing Cross Road and Shaftesbury Avenue. Along the way there is a visit to the Freemasons’ Hall , “Tin Pan Alley” and the church of St-Giles-In-The-Fields, which gives its name to this district.

Day 26 Route

We start on Kingsway and head briefly west along Great Queen Street before turning north up Newton Street. This ends at High Holborn where we turn west again before veering left into Smart’s Place which leads into Stukeley Street. Formerly known as Goldsmith’s Street this was the site of the original permanent residence of the City Lit. , one of five literary institutes set up after WW1 to cater to the need for adult learning provision. City Lit moved in here in the late twenties but had outgrown the original building within a few years so that was demolished and a new purpose built facility constructed. Opened in 1939 by Poet Laureate John Masefield, the new building contained a theatre, concert hall and gym and remained the home of City Lit. until 2005 when they moved to new premises in the Covent Garden area.

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Just round the corner on Smart’s Place is what remains of the almshouses built here by the parishes of St Giles and St George Bloomsbury in 1895.

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Westward again on Macklin Street brings us out onto the northern stretch of Drury Lane. We’re on the fringes of “Theatreland” here and first of the three (current) theatres we pass on our travels today is the New London Theatre. One of the most modern of London’s West End theatres this was built in 1973 on the site of the old Winter Garden Theatre. Probably best known for hosting the original run of Cats from 1981 to 2002 it’s currently playing the critically-lauded revival of Showboat.

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So we turn east down Parker Street and make our way back to Great Queen Street. Heading west again we pass the Grade II listed Grand Connaught Rooms at nos. 61-63. Currently a conference, weddings and events venue owned by a hotel group this retains the façade of the Freemason’s Tavern, Britain’s first Grand Lodge, which originally stood here (until 1905).

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On that façade are two plaques commemorating events which took place at the Freemasons’ Tavern – the creation of the Football Association in 1863 and the first geological society in 1807. It was also where the Anti-Slavery Society was founded apparently. Surely you’d want to make more noise about that than the geological thing (or the FA for that matter).

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Which brings us to the Freemasons’ Hall and to be honest I hadn’t expected any part of this to be accessible but there is a Museum of Freemasonry on the first floor that you can visit free of charge as well as an extensive library both of which are full of some quite remarkable artefacts. The current art-deco behemoth is the third incarnation of the Freemasons’ Hall on the site since 1775 and was built during 1927-32 in honour of the Freemasons who died in the Great War. Its Grand Temple seats up to 1,700 – that’s a lot of aprons.

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Now I think it’s fair to say that the Freemasons have enjoyed a somewhat ambivalent reputation throughout their history. I myself have shared some of the prejudices inspired by the whole regalia, funny handshake and initiation ceremony schtick – not to mention the secret brotherhood aspect that (allegedly) wields influence in the upper echelons of the police, the judiciary and certain political institutions. In the interests of balance therefore it needs to be noted that the Masons is a secular (and supposedly non-political) organisation with all members free to practice their own religion; it emphasises personal moral responsibility and does a lot of work for charity. The United Grand Lodge of England (UGLE) is of course exclusively male. There is an Order of Women Freemasons which has been around since the turn of the 20th century but UGLE doesn’t officially recognize it (though they did acknowledge its existence in 1999 which was nice of them). However you wouldn’t necessarily gather that from the materials on display in the museum which include a number of items relating to women freemasons. I haven’t room to go into the history of Freemasonry but you can read up on it here.

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Just a couple of things to note from the slide show above: that chair (Grand Master’s Throne) is one of three commissioned in 1791 to mark the election of the Prince of Wales (later George IV) as Grand Master of the Moderns Lodge, the silver elephant is a cigar lighter made from smelted rupees and one of three gifted by an Indian Maharajah to the Lodge of Humility with Fortitude, the pentagon symbol I can find no information on but I suspect is a stand-in for the sacred pentagram (five pointed star inside a pentagon inside a circle) with its Da Vinci Code associations. You probably also saw today’s reflection of the day (“selfie” has now been retired).

Should you ever seek to become a mason yourself then all the gear can be found in the Central Regalia emporium, conveniently situated just across the road. Special offer on masonic candles at the moment.

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Also opposite is the HQ of the Royal Masonic Trust for Boys and Girls one of the four charitable institutions established by the Freemasons in the 18th century.

We’re back up Drury Lane again next then turning left down Shorts Gardens as far as Endell Street. The Cross Keys pub with its splendidly ornate exterior has occupied no. 31 Endell Street since 1848 and by all accounts is well worth a visit.

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Another place worth trying is the Poetry Place (aka the Poetry Café) on Betterton Street which runs back to Drury Lane.

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A circuit of Dryden Street, Arne Street and Shelton Street finds us back on Endell Street at the northern end of which resides the Swiss Church (or Eglise Suisse if you prefer). Just about every major European nationality seems to have established its own ecclesiastical home here in London. This one dates from 1762 and has occupied this site since 1855 though has undergone major rebuilding after WWII and between 2008 and 2011 when the architects, appropriately enough, were the practice of Christ and Gantenbein. True to national form the all-white interior is the epitome of calm reflection (though I believe they will be showing Switzerlands Euro 2016 fixtures live in here.)

Next door, on the corner with High Holborn, is the former St Giles National School built in 1859 to the design of Edward Middleton Barry.

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Across the other side of High Holborn is our second theatre of the day, the Shaftesbury, which opened in 1911 as the New Prince’s Theatre. Longest run here seems to have been the musical Hair which started in 1968 and was curtailed in 1973 (two short of its 2,000th performance) when part of the ceiling fell in. Despite the threat of redevelopment in the immediate aftermath of this the theatre survived and was granted listed status a year later. It is currently host to yet another jukebox musical in the form of Motown though perhaps one with a classier songbook to draw on than most.

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Head past the theatre eastward along High Holborn before turning left up Museum Street and taking a dog-leg round West Central Street which is a cherishably rare corner of scruffiness in the heart of town.

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Having emerged onto New Oxford Street we cut back down the first few yards of Shaftesbury Avenue before skirting round the back of the theatre along Grape Street, apparently so-named because it once ran alongside the vineyard belonging to St Giles Hospital.

Leave the theatre behind and make our way west via Bloomsbury Street, Dyott Street, Bucknall Street and Earnshaw Street bypassing the Crossrail mayhem and the redevelopment of Centrepoint.

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This brings us to Denmark Street which, as noted in the intro, was colloquially known as the UK’s “Tin Pan Alley” for much of the twentieth century. The first music publisher set up home here in 1911. That was Lawrence Wright who founded the Melody Maker in 1926. In 1952 the New Musical Express was also started from an office here and during that same decade music publishers and songwriters took over most of the street.

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In the sixties groups who began to pen their own material and the predominance of recorded music helped to bring about a decline in both music publishing and songwriting for hire. Taking their place, a number of recording studios opened including Regent Sound Studio at no.4. This was where the Rolling Stones recorded their first album in 1964, under the guiding hand of manager Andrew Loog Oldham.

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In the mid 1970’s the Sex Pistols lived above in the upper floor of no.6 and rehearsed in its basement. Graffiti by Johnny Rotten depicting other members of the band was recently uncovered and has inspired the Department of Culture to grant Grade 2 listed status to the building. Just a little bit of that spirit still lives on.

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In 1992 the last of the publishers moved out and the focus shifted to musical instrument vendors (principally guitars). In the wake of Crossrail plans were drawn up for a redevelopment of the street which though committed to preserving the fabric of the street brought protests from those concerned that it would wreck the character of the place and force out many of the existing businesses. This struggle is still ongoing but for now at least the guitar shops seem to be hanging on tenaciously.

Double back down Denmark Street and you arrive at St-Giles-In-The-Field church. This was originally the site of a church leper hospital founded in 1101 by Queen Mathilda, wife of King Henry 1. The present church was designed and built in the Palladian style (after the 16th century Italian architect Andrea Palladio) in 1730-34 by Henry Flitcroft, who went on to design Woburn Abbey. Back in the day St Giles was the last church en route to the gallows at Tyburn and the churchwardens paid for the condemned to be given a draft of ale from the Angel pub next door before their execution. Whether or not Oliver Plunkett, Archbishop of Armagh was granted this benefice before being hung, drawn and quartered in 1681 and then buried in the churchyard is unknown.

Among the many memorials inside the church are those to Richard Penderell who accompanied Charles II on his flight from Cromwell and the watchmaker Thomas Earnshaw (1749 – 1829). There is also the tomb of Lady Frances Kniveton who was the daughter of Sir Robert Dudley (1574 – 1649) the illegitimate son of the man of the same name who was the first Earl of Leicester and favourite of Elizabeth I.

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After this it’s time for lunch, an Indonesian pulled chicken satay salad from one of the food stalls in the churchyard. While I eat this on a bench in the grounds the nearby bin is visited by a crow who has worked out that a meal is to be had by pulling out the discarded food trays and bags and spilling their remaining contents on the ground. Clever things crows. Your average pigeon hasn’t got a handle on that yet.

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Head away from the church down Flitcroft Street which takes us to the Pheonix Garden – a community garden and registered charity, managed by volunteers drawn from the local community and workers in the area. It’s currently closed for building works but is due to re-open this summer (2016).

Stacey Street runs alongside the garden passing Pheonix Street with its eponymous theatre. I don’t think I’d ever been down here before and so had only seen the theatre from the Charing Cross Road side which presents the main entrance and a incongruously functional office block sandwiched between it and the similarly neo-classical but superior Pheonix Street façade. The Pheonix Theatre was built on the site where the Alcazar music hall previously stood and opened in 1930 with a production of Noel Coward’s Private Lives.  The exterior was designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, Bertie Crewe and Cecil Masey, whilst the interior, often considered to be one of London’s finest, was designed by director Theodore Komisarjevsky in an Italianate style with golden wall engravings and plush, red carpets. Currently showing, as you can see, is the classic Guys and Dolls.

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Returning to Stacey Street we head a short way further south to New Compton Street which is as non-descript as Old Compton Street is exuberant. At the end of this we turn right then right again down Shaftesbury Avenue. On the west side we pass by the institution that is Forbidden Planet, which started out as a comic shop in Denmark Street in 1978 but now styles itself as a “cult entertainment megastore” (yes that’s a “c” missing from the left-hand side of the picture not an “ad”).

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And a bit further down is what I will always think of as the ABC Shaftesbury Avenue but was rebranded in 2001 as the Odeon Covent Garden . The building, which opened in 1931, actually started life as the Saville Theatre (perhaps just as well that didn’t last).  The sculptured frieze which extends for nearly 40 metres along the façade of the building is by Gilbert Bayes and represents ‘Drama Through The Ages.’ In the sixties the theatre was often leased by the Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein, who promoted gigs there by the likes of The Who, The Bee Gees and the Jimi Hendrix Experience as well as the Fab Four themselves. In 1969 the theatre was bought by ABC Cinemas (then owned by EMI) and converted into the 2-screen ABC1 and ABC2. The takeover of ABC by Odeon Cinemas in 2001 resulted in a further conversion into four screens and the change to its current name (ignoring the fact that it can’t by any stretch of the imagination be considered to fall within the borders of Covent Garden).

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And with that it’s Roll Credits for today.