Today’s Nature Walk: Through Leicester Square

London

If you’re going to spend a lot of time at home, you’d better learn to love being there. A friend lives in a flat so small that she puts her laptop on her draining board. Can we do this for over a year without going crazy?

Not many of us live in the centre of London right now. As families move to the commuter belt to work from home with more space, we happy few remain. There are hardly any shops open because they’re geared to a workforce that no longer arrives. Most of those workers may never come back. Nothing they do requires their physical presence.

My company’s art studio used to be a sunny space full of people arguing and throwing paint around. That devolved to staff on headsets staring at screens with the blinds drawn. They had already gone somewhere else. This is simply the next logical step.

It’s so quiet here. I walk through a giant supermarket with one till open. I never have to queue. The tubes are deserted, the roads empty. The Leicester Square interchange, usually an overcrowded nightmare, the Victorian passageways no longer fit for use, can be negotiated without seeing another human being. The trains are still arriving one every two minutes, but that’s about to change.

Most noticeable of all is the lack of children. There’s no reason for them to be here. Parents wouldn’t consider a wander through the West End a healthy walk, but why should it be treated differently to a woodland hike? The air is clean, the birds are singing, there’s lots to look at. Behind Leicester Square the Japan Centre is still open because it sells food (and books!)

Even WH Smith has wangled a pass; thanks to its tiny array of foodstuffs it’s staying open. It means there’s a bookshop available, even if it doesn’t stock the kind of books I read.

I’m a city lad; the most I ever saw of the countryside was an hour spent trudging through a muddy field in Kent before the family beat a hasty retreat back to the car. It all looks the same, and makes me feel lonely.

Back in the West End I head for the old palace and the seat of the nation’s power. St James’s Palace is the most senior royal palace in the United Kingdom, and gives the name, Court of St James’s, to the monarch’s royal court. It’s always quiet around here but today there’s a heron in the road. One minute from Piccadilly.

This is a part of central London I have never knowingly taken a walk in, even though I used to work in St James’s Square. Because each part of London is so different we remain territorial to our areas. Many of the grand streets around here are used for old films because little has changed in them since Edwardian times.

There are a surprising number of alleyways, gunnels and staircases hidden between the buildings. They’re only discernible with a good guide book. I’m currently tinkering with a Bryant & May London guide. I think I’ll keep it chatty and light in tone, because there are serious guide books about every central London street.

Just behind the street above is this bucolic corner, built to house the coachmen who waited on the members of the area’s many private clubs. It all feels a bit ‘English’ in inverted commas. I wouldn’t want to live here. You must have to walk miles to find a decent Indian corner shop.

23 comments on “Today’s Nature Walk: Through Leicester Square”

  1. Mark Redknap says:

    Missing all the narrow lanes, hithes, gates, short-cuts and standing archaeology of walks during visits to London, but looking forward to Bryant and May taking me there again!

  2. Annemarie Pondo says:

    Thanks for the tour. The pictures are so clear showing every detail. But of course ur narrative is so smooth reminding me u r slowly ‍♂️ as u speak. Stay safe

  3. Ian Mason says:

    Of course one didn’t need to wait for a pandemic to get the experience of feeling like you had the city to oneself. I haven’t done this for years, so I don’t know if it’s still true, but on any weekend you used to find the streets of the City of London proper (“the square mile”) completely deserted of pedestrians and devoid of traffic. A fifteen minute walk away the West End would be heaving with people going about their business and entertainments, and in the City … no one.

    The first time I encountered the City empty on a Saturday I really did get that feeling of having wandered onto the set of some film set post-apocalypse. It doesn’t take long under those circumstances before you start wondering whether something awful has happened, you’ve missed it and are walking blithely unknowingly through the last half hour of your life.

    I’d had a similar experience in company in 1992, when myself and some colleagues had staggered out, post lock-in, of a pub in Southwark. The streets were eerily empty for the time and place, and we joked that we’d just walked into the plot of a movie. It was only when we encountered an irate policeman that we discovered that we were on the inside of a police cordon put in place because of the explosion of an IRA bomb in Tooley Street. Ten journalists (of sorts), in a pub, less than half a mile from a major incident and we’d all missed it.

  4. Brian Evans says:

    “Because each part of London is so different we remain territorial to our areas”-This reminds me of Prof Higgins in “My Fair Lady” when he says he can trace almost within a few streets which part of London someone comes from by the way they speak and their accent. Or, words to that effect.

  5. John Williams says:

    In these times, this is a very good substitute.

    https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCFWqceEDVxifaU3ljzMH5tg

  6. Barbara Boucke says:

    You cannot begin to imagine how much I appreciate this entry. It brings back so many memories of my wanderings around London. Today I really appreciate it even more since it takes my mind somewhere else instead of the mess here in the States. Next to Lock & Co. Hatters there is (or was) a narrow passageway that led to Pickering Place where Nell Gwyn alledgedly lived. I remember another narrow alley-like way somewhere else where the buildings still had the emblems on them to show who had paid for fire insurance. Thank you!!!

  7. Wayne Mook says:

    I need to wander into Manchester to pay stuff and buy food, so hopefully I’ll be able to see some of the empty streets. the last lockdown it was eerie, although in a little shop I did manage to score some toilet roll.

    A friend became a London Tour guide last year, or was it the late of the previous, I bought her a nice book for Christmas unfortunately it was due to be delivered the beginning of December, sadly I’ve just had the money refunded. So what slightly obscure London book would you recommend for a London tour guide? (remember I am a poorly paid civil servant.)

    On loneliness, when you first move into a tower block, especially if you don’t work there is an emotional wall you hit at about 6 months, for some a bit quicker for others a bit longer, but hit it you do. It’s a depression, you tend to feel lackluster, loss of interest and feeling generally down, an urban ennui. If your warned about it, it’s easier to deal with but still difficult. I think this is the sort of thing people have been dealing with. I did research this in part, as well as behaviour in lifts, my degree is in social science, sadly I never had the chance to do a master or phd, maybe one day.

    Wayne.

  8. Derek j Lewis says:

    I know you’ve got other priorities but these walks are so good they need compiling. I really believe you’ve got a brilliantly written modern version of ‘The London nobody knows’ on your hands.

  9. admin says:

    I’m on it, Derek. This is why I’m doing the walks. Watch for future updates.

  10. Brian Evans says:

    Wayne, I don’t just think it need be a tower block. After a while, I even find a flat in a converted house to be very claustrophobic. I think it is some sort of emotional block not having direct access to a bit of garden, back yard or even street. I hope I’m not stating the bleedin’ obvious!

  11. Derek j Lewis says:

    Wayne have a look at John Rogers ‘this other london’ <tenner.

  12. Sarah Griffin says:

    We need the lone walker like yourself to help us imagine our capital without it’s blood flow of populace. You are a great witness of strange times Mr Fowler!

  13. Mary Young says:

    That was a skilfully written picture. It was quite ghostly and much appreciated.

  14. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    You are definitely the person to write an account of these strange times. At some point in the future people won’t believe it was really like this.
    You are able to portray events in a way that people can relate to things and places they have experienced. Looking forward to the updates.

  15. Helen Martin says:

    We still have a number of people passing our house but they’re all walking dogs. I had a chat with a lady in a wheelchair who regularly walks her dog and husband; she checks out my garden and wondered why my helebore wasn’t blooming. I must improve her view come spring. Or even now, I suppose.
    Brian, it’s any kind of a move. The normal view disappears, all your visual markings are gone and so are the sounds that help you keep time. The familiar voices are harder to reach, even the visiting cats are different, but it takes a while for the permanence of the change to sink in, I think.
    Looking forward to the guide book.

  16. Andrew Holme says:

    Helen, you’ve put a picture in my head of a lady in a wheelchair with two leads attached to the chair arm. One controlling her dog and the other keeping her husband to heel.

  17. Helen Martin says:

    The cheekiness in me was quite willing for people to get that image. She is definitely in charge.

  18. Ed DesCamp says:

    Andrew – Helen’s description had me envisioning the two providing the motive force…straining at the leashes, as it were.

  19. Helen Martin says:

    No, Ed, she is in charge so she has a powered chair and the other two follow obediently behind – except when the dog is resting in her lap.

  20. Ed DesCamp says:

    Ah, thanks for the clarification, Helen.

  21. Andrew Holme says:

    Now we have the story of this brilliant Canadian woman walking her husband on a dog lead, at midnight, to get round the curfew.

  22. Lauren C says:

    Yes to a Bryant & May London guide!

  23. Helen Martin says:

    Yes, Andrew, but she is Quebecois, I believe, and that would explain her creativity, if not his complicity.

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