Central London’s Last Quiet Neighbourhood
After my Halloween reading at the National Liberal Club, we took a stroll in the only remaining part of Central London that’s truly under-visited. Mist had rolled in from the river and it was drizzling softly, creating aureoles of light around the street lamps. There were no cars and hardly any people, and it was very quiet. This was at 10pm, yet just two streets further over was a bustling, busy area full of outdoor cafes and strangely, Lyndsay Lohan (appearing in ‘Speed-The-Plow’).
Welcome to Westminster, which starts at Northumberland Avenue, is bordered by the Thames on its lower side, and extends to Birdcage Walk and the Houses of Parliament beyond. This first part contains grand classical buildings in the Palladian style, and is the home to many London private clubs. Next to the National Liberal Club is the Savage Club, a relative newcomer at 1857, which still does not allow women except on ladies’ nights.
There are now just fifty clubs left between here and St James’s, which has so many it was always known as ‘Clubland’, although another seventy or so have merged into them or each other, with names like the Beefsteak, Rockford’s, the Eccentric and the Constitutional, now all gone. The Green Room Club, of which I was a member, was an arts club which finally closed in 2000 and became the John Adams Club.
Of those that remain, many still do not allow women. The Garrick, which is dedicated to the arts and the theatre, still does not, a policy which extends back to a time when no women were allowed on the stage. To be a member of the Reform Club, members still sign a declaration agreeing to the principles of the 1832 Reform Act. The Arts Club is a members club founded in 1863 by, among others, Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope and Lord Leighton. It’s just outside the area in Dover Street, Mayfair, but now has Gwyneth Paltrow on its board and is presumably filled with shrieking media ninnies.
Westminster keeps its mysteries because in autumn and winter it is often damp and gloomy down here, there are no shops and few tourists, save for those who use the several high-end hotels tucked discreetly in its streets.
I worked on the film ‘Wilde’, and one of my oddest memories of the area was walking here. We had been to the premiere of the film and were heading to the Savoy, but had strolled down near the river’s edge where a heavy mist had rolled in, deadening all sound. We were in evening dress and wearing Wilde’s infamous green carnations, myself, Stephen Fry (playing Wilde) and Jude Law (who played Bosie) among others, and for a moment the past invaded the present.
Then, the busy hubbub of Villiers Street and the lights of the Strand beckoned, and the past folded into the present.