London’s Forgotten Streets

London

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‘Riceyman Steps’ by Arnold Bennett (1923) is a tough read, being relentlessly downbeat until a faint ray of light at the close. It concerns the final year in the life of Henry, who keeps a second-hand bookshop in Clerkenwell area (the steps are still there although most of the houses have gone – they used to be known as the ‘Plum Pudding Steps’ – no-one seems to know why). Henry marries Violet, a widow who keeps a neighbouring shop, and who sees in Henry a financially safe future. Henry’s miserliness drives them into an increasingly wretched existence while their maid servant Elsie looks forward to life and a happier future.

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It’s one of many books that use real London locations for settings. I was mooching in the drizzly November dusk and crossed the steeply angled and perversely circular Percy Circus, one of those backstreets which we would once have considered to be nicely nondescript, but where the houses are now worth a fortune and have become portfolio properties for Russian investors (a bit of a cruel joke seeing as Lenin once lived here). On the far side of the circus is Great Percy Street, crossing an area that has hardly changed in a century and a half. The wide roads and electrified former gas lamps are reminiscent of the streets around Primrose Hill.

Best of all is Amwell Street, which is filled with quirky independent shops. Sadly Filthy McNasty’s, the wonderful pub full of perpetually pissed writers, has now been brasseriefied and made horribly respectable, but here you can find Quill, a lovely paper shop filled with stationery, and classy little homewares stores – like an upmarket version of Upper Street, Islington.

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Call me a snob but I don’t want to live in a street with a McDonalds; they’re magnets for litter and late-night trouble. I like the fact that Douglas Adams, Lenin and Sir Walter Raleigh lived nearby. Perhaps because these streets don’t really lead anywhere, they’ve bypassed the vicissitudes of time and still match up to old photographs. The size of the ground floors makes them best suited to independent shops. In many so-called urban areas (like mine) the front gardens of residential houses were leased out as shop space in the late 19th century and remain, blighting many streets.

It still amazes me after all these years that two streets can sit side by side and be so different. Kensington, Chelsea and Hampstead are the only areas I can think of that have been ethnically cleansed. In nearly every other area the old and the new, the scruffy and the sparkling sit comfortably side by side. Amwell Street and its likes survived the decades but ultimately lost the battle – not to developers, but to estate agents seeking homes for offshore corporations.

6 comments on “London’s Forgotten Streets”

  1. Vivienne says:

    I read Riceyman Steps some years ago and was intrigued by the setting and eventually set off to find the Steps. I think they are Gwendolyn Steps or similar – it took some walking around to find them. But I was really struck by how apparently well preserved and unchanged the area was. Myddleton Square in particular seems cut off from the present time. Is the 1940s dairy shop still there in Amwell Street, I wonder. (I’d probably rather not know).

  2. admin says:

    It’s still there. The street hasn’t really changed.

  3. Martin Tolley says:

    If you look on Google street view you can see the dairy shop, and if you look at the Quill shop just down the road http://tinyurl.com/yabub7ke you can see all (or most of) London life made plain…

  4. Chris Everest says:

    Very intrigued by the mysterious figure on the balcony of the chemists in Martin Tolley’s supplied Google Street View. I really hope other people can see her/him ?

  5. Helen Martin says:

    The Vancouver Pen Shop sells a wide range of pens, ink, and writing paper with matching envelopes. Paper ya on Granville Island has all the oriental papers. I wonder if it is only a matter of looking in our cities for these (for me) essential supplies?
    I am hoping to be walking well enough tomorrow to mail my challenge to the Royal Mail. Will let you know so you can time them.

  6. Helen Martin says:

    (Not walking well today at all.)
    The mysterious figure on the chemist’s balcony. I’ve looked several times now, watching the appearance, the leaning over the railing, the turning to the right hand end of the balcony. Is it a woman in a pale top and shorts? a man without a shirt? a man undergoing cancer treatment? Someone watching the Google car passing down their street?

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