London’s Most Surprising Walk
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).