London’s Most Surprising Walk

London

In all of the London guides I’ve read (clue: a few) the same entries crop up time and time again. Some are filled with fun trivia but unsatisfying; ‘Eccentric London’ is peppered with lazy mistakes, while ‘Curiocity’ leaves you wanting longer entries. There seem to be hardly any by women writers – why are travel guides such an exclusively male province?

Many authors clearly use the same source material without thinking to use the most powerful tool at their disposal – their eyes. In the 21st century, scrabbling about for concrete evidence in the city’s historical infrastructure is paying off less and less. AsLondon reinvents itself it leaves behind precious little of the past. When I was younger the remains of a bombsite on Soho’s Wardour Street could still be seen (many stayed around for decades). It had been turned into an NCP car park, but it had once been a hotel, and the elaborate mosaic floor to the entrance remained in St Anne’s Court for years, petering out under some chicken wire to a vast hole filled with cars. Now it’s once more a hotel.

I can’t find any mention of it (although I haven’t checked at the London Metropolitan Archive), but there was another one in Gerrard Street, and this, ‘L’Hotel De Bologne’, still has its mosaic entrance even now. To find it, look down at the entrance to the London Chinatown restaurant.

So you can find much more detail just by looking around. Which brings me to this:

In terms of atmosphere and surroundings, what’s the shortest distance you can walk in London to travel the greatest distance?

I would suggest Rupert Street to St James’s Park, which should take about 8 minutes.

 

You start in a Soho backstreet immortalised in books like Colin MacInnes’ ‘Absolute Beginners’, the second of his London Trilogy, after City of Spades (1958) and before Mr. Love and Justice (1960). In an area where everything is now ersatz it still feels authentically seedy and filmic even though it has lost the brilliant neon signage of Madame JoJo’s – then turn into Shaftesbury Avenue’s blazing theatreland, cross Piccadilly Circus and drop down into the suddenly ritzy and calm Lower Regent Street.

It’s now officially known as Regent Street St James’s, not that anyone except Westminster Council, who wasted taxpayers’ money on the ‘rebrand’, has even noticed, and nip down the great stone staircase in front.

You’ve passed the Crimean War memorial – good old Flo Nightingale there, some would say facing the wrong way – and onto the grandest road in London, the Mall, oddly red, hop over the road and you’re confronted with pelicans and geese and a view across the lake to the gothic and moorish turrets of Whitehall.

When people wonder how London can change so radically in a few hundred yards, here is the answer. It’s simply the way the city evolved around the landscape. Many cities are concrete platforms balanced on top of marshy soil. London’s roads still follow medieval riverbanks and hedgerows.

After Boris Johnson’s disastrous mayorship he bulldozed public opinion and council advice to push through a vast luxury apartment complex at Mount Pleasant that geographically opposed this line of the land, running N-S instead of E-W. It is now being constructed – but apparently the correct way around (if anyone has an update on this, I’d be interested to know where it currently stands).

 

13 comments on “London’s Most Surprising Walk”

  1. Polly says:

    I remember the bomb site very well – all the winos used to sit in there when the weather was good. The aroma was pretty strong – used to take a deep breath on approach and exhale when safely past.

  2. snowy says:

    Wait! What! Another wafer-thin excuse for me to bore people with links to maps! It’s like the cover of a short story collection Christmas round here!

    While the LMA does have a collection of hand-coloured Bomb Damage maps, not all are on line. But the bomb sites were diligently recorded by the Ord. Survey.

    [Link above centered on Gerrard St. Uncleared sites are maked with the legend ‘Ruins’, cleared sites just appear ‘white’.]

  3. snowy says:

    But to get an approximation of what the effects a bit of ‘High-Altitude Landscaping’ and the subsequent LCC ‘improvements’ did to the look of London, takes a bit more fiddling about. [link above]

    Left hand pane 1895 map, typical mix of housing, commercial and retail.

    Right hand panel 1967 map, the same area, zoom in for more details.

  4. Helen Martin says:

    Absolutely fascinating both of them. I like the “patented rope manufacturer” which takes up such a long thin site. I assume it was a rope walk kind of thing. The Catholic church is just that “RC Church” in the earlier map but acquires its name on the later map. There is such a huge swathe of land wiped clear. On the very first map I like the fact that there is a police post in St. James’ Palace and all the historic duke names are there as “houses”. Forced myself out of there before I disappeared.

  5. SteveB says:

    I remember Dark They Were.. in St Anne’s Court, which later metamorphosed into Forbidden Planet. There was a Forbidden Planet in New York too, which was quite exciting to visit in those pre internet days. OK I’m rambling

  6. admin says:

    I remember the one in NYC – surprisingly not as good as the one in London. I had expected it to be better stocked. When I moved to the US I sold the London one my entire comics collection for a knock-down price, never expecting to be back. I came back.

  7. chazza says:

    I remember Dark They Were when Derek Stokes (the founder) was operating out of a lock up garage in Barons Court before moving to a tiny shop in Bedfordbury and then on to a shop behind the chicken stall in Berwick Street Market and then St Anne’s Court. Truly a visionary chap, was Derek!

  8. SimonB says:

    I never knew Dark…, but I do have fond memories of buying imported heavy metal in Shades when they were to be found in St Anne’s Court. Their silver carrier bags were a bit of a status symbol around 6th form.

  9. I find looking up when walking around London can reveal quite a lot. Like the Names of foreign hospitals carved into the stonework, so you know what the building was, a century or more ago. Or beautiful decorations carved by talented stonemasons before such things became too expensive…

  10. Ian Luck says:

    ‘London’s Most Surprising Walk’. Would that be Max Wall?

    Sorry.

  11. Helen Martin says:

    No, it’s John Cleese.
    Not sorry at all.

  12. Ian Luck says:

    I could have included Nat Jackley and Billy Dainty, both masters of the silly walk – but neither of them came from London. Incidentally, John Cleese was the co-author of a Superman comic series, a few years ago – ‘Superman – True Brit’, which re-imagines the story of Superman if he had crash landed in England as a baby. It’s very funny. There are nods to Monty Python in dozens of the frames, which made my brother and I childishly excited when we read it.

  13. Helen Martin says:

    The great weirdnesses that are out there just waiting to be dug up.

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