Sunday, August 01, 2004

Local history month - August 2004

Time for some more local history...

August is my last full month working in an office down one of London's premier streets - Piccadilly. I thought I'd mark this event by taking a wander all the way down my local street from Piccadilly Circus to Hyde Park Corner, taking an in-depth look at all the sights there are to see. I'll be reporting back on cucumber sandwiches, Nippies, posh shops, prostitutes, the Queen's childhood home, a disused tube station, Mrs Slocombe's pussy and much much more. Read on.

Famous places down the street where I work

I used to work on a minor road in Ipswich, a bland strip of tarmac lined by furniture warehouses and shabby Victorian terraces. I now work on one of the most famous streets in the world, a grand thoroughfare of exclusive shops and historic Georgian terraces. It's quite an improvement I can tell you.

Piccadilly is one of London's oldest roads, leading from the West End to the west of town. The eastern half (pictured left) was originally called Portugal Street and the western half Hyde Park Road. The modern name of the road comes from a tailor named Robert Baker who had his business in nearby Haymarket. He made his fortune in the 17th century selling a fashionable frilled collar called a piccadil, and then spent his fortune on a big mansion on the outskirts of town nicknamed Pickadilly Hall. The street eventually took the name Piccadilly as a result, growing up posh and proper over the following centuries.

Piccadilly is nearly a mile long, with tall elegant buildings along most of its length and Green Park along the south side of the western half. The street is numbered from Piccadilly Circus down to Hyde Park Corner and back again, from 1 (Tower Records) to 149 (Apsley House) on the north side and back from 150 (The Ritz) to 230 (Virgin Megastore) on the south. Few streets in the world can boast landmarks and institutions as famous as those to be found along Piccadilly.

It's a very exclusive street, sandwiched between posh Mayfair and upmarket St James. It's a surprisingly wide street, more an avenue really, with room for at least four lanes of traffic. It's part of the A4, the trunk road that heads out of the capital towards Bristol. It's a street full of tourists, more crowded to the east, more upmarket to the west. It's a street full of Routemasters, with only one of the six bus routes so far 'upgraded' to one-person operation. And it's the street the Piccadilly Line is named after, the navy blue tube line running deep beneath the road surface.

I should point out to non-residents that not every street in London is like this. Pick a street at random from the London A-Z and you're much more likely find a few run-down houses and a kebab shop. But the street I work on is really mighty fine indeed. So, join me on my stroll down Piccadilly, starting below beneath the staue of Eros. See, I told you it was famous.

Piccadilly links
Map of Piccadilly
A Piccadilly walk
Victorian Piccadilly
Piccadilly line history
Piccadilly Palare
the A4

Famous places down the street where I work
Piccadilly Circus

They say that if you stand in Piccadilly Circus for long enough, eventually everyone in the world will pass by. Stand among the crowds of tourists beneath Eros on a busy summer's day and you could almost believe that this is true. Obviously you'd have to wait around an awful long time to see both Osama Bin Laden and my Mum, but you get the idea. Piccadilly Circus isn't a particularly special place really, just a big road junction with a statue and some adverts, but it's got space to mill around and somehow it feels important. And it's a real magnet for foreign visitors who stand around in large groups endlessly taking pictures of each other just 'being here'.

Piccadilly Circus was formed in 1819 by the intersection of John Nash's magnificent curving Regent Street with Piccadilly. The newly-formed crossroads wasn't so much a circus as a square, and a very grand square at that. In 1886 Shaftesbury Avenue was built, demolishing the north-east corner and giving the road junction the oddly squashed shape it has today. Tenants of the new buildings realised they could sell advertising space on their façades and so the area became famous for its illuminated advertising boards. It's a far cry from the first ad for Bovril (comprising just 600 light bulbs) to the mesmerising electronic displays to be found here today.

The most well-known sight in Piccadilly Circus is the statue of Eros, designed by Alfred Gilbert and erected in 1893 to commemorate the philanthropic works of Lord Shaftesbury. Despite what most people think it's not a statue of the Greek god of love, being officially titled 'The Angel of Christian Charity'. The figure is made of aluminium, a rare metal at the time of its construction, and sits atop a bronze fountain depicting a variety of marine life. The winged nude originally pointed towards Shaftesbury Avenue, firing his arrow downwards into the pavement (burying his shaft - although that's apparently a coincidence). During the Second World War the statue was removed for safe keeping, but on its return the bow was fixed pointing to the south, and then again wrongly reorientated after the road junction was upgraded in the 1990s. No sense of history, these town planners.

On the north-eastern side of the Circus is the London Pavilion, originally a music hall and now home to the Trocadero shopping arcade. To the west at number 1 Piccadilly is the old Swan and Edgar department store, reborn in 1982 as Tower Records and very very recently reopened after major refurbishment as yet another Virgin Megastore. And directly beneath London's most famous roundabout lies Piccadilly Circus tube station, built in 1906 with its trademark circular ticket hall. I rather like the mechanical clock down there depicting 'The World Time Today', but few tourists ever seem to stop to check out the time back home. Too busy I guess. It's like Piccadilly Circus here.

Piccadilly Circus links
360º panorama
Piccadilly Circus photos
A brief history
The building of Piccadilly Circus station
Plans of Piccadilly Circus station
Filmed here: An American Werewolf in London

Famous places down the street where I work
The Criterion (224 Piccadilly)

I was surprised to discover that the row of buildings along the south side of Piccadilly Circus is actually part of the street of Piccadilly itself. That's the Virgin Megastore on the corner of Haymarket - the one with the prancing equine fountain outside. And Lillywhite's sporting department store - five floors of flannel, lycra, leather and nylon. And, sandwiched inbetween, there's the Criterion theatre and bar.

Apart from the box office the whole of the Criterion Theatre lies underground, and the stage is currently home to the Reduced Shakespeare Company. Upstairs you'll find the Criterion Brasserie, a fine example of art nouveau design (pre-Byzantine, so I'm told, although I've never been inside). The entrance is decked with palm trees, the bar is carpeted with Oriental rugs and the main room has a gold mosaic celing with high marble walls. Sounds gorgeous, if a little pricy, so I think I'll stick to Burger King over the road. One of the Criterion's most famous patrons was Dr Watson, who popped in for a drink just before being whisked off to meet Sherlock Holmes for the first time. A plaque on the north wall still commemorates this famous ficticious meeting.
I was standing at the Criterion Bar, when some one tapped me on the shoulder, and turning round I recognized young Stamford, who had been a dresser under me at Barts. The sight of a friendly face in the great wilderness of London is a pleasant thing indeed to a lonely man.... Young Stamford looked rather strangely at me over his wine-glass. "You don't know Sherlock Holmes yet," he said; "perhaps you would not care for him as a constant companion." (A Study In Scarlet, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 1887)
Restaurant review 1899
Restaurant review 2004

Famous places down the street where I work
The first Lyons teashop (213 Piccadilly)

The fast food revolution started right here with the opening of the very first Lyons Teashop in 1894. Joseph Lyons believed in fine quality and good service and his teashops were an instant hit, providing one of the very first places for women to socialise. By 1900 there were over 200 white and gold fronted Lyons Teashops in existence, mostly in London and the suburbs, each with an identical menu of high tea and cakes. Joe soon opened his Trocadero restaurant on the opposite side of Piccadilly Circus, and in 1909 the first Lyons Corner House opened just around the corner in Coventry Street. His waitresses were always impeccably turned out, originally nicknamed Gladys but rechristened Nippies in the 1920s. Each shop sold bakery items out front along with a counter service behind providing hot meals, cakes and beverages. Teatime heaven.
Menu 1914
Tea (the most perfect the world produces) freshly made for each person per Cup 2d, per Pot per Person 3½d
Sultana cake 1d, Toasted with butter 2d
Cherry cake, whole cake 2/-, per piece 2d
The whole Lyons phenomenon is documented on this brilliant and detailed website. Makes one nostalgic for the good old days on Britain's high streets when tea was tea and not coffee, when bread was bread and not chemical stodge, when cakes were cakes and not muffins, and when service was important and not forgotten in the drive for profit. Alas Lyons went bust in the 1970s, overtaken by a vast array of competing food outlets and restaurants, and 213 Piccadilly is now a dull boring British Airways travel shop, but I give thanks that at least it's not another Starbucks because that would be pure sacrilege.

Famous places down the street where I work
Simpson of Piccadilly (203 Piccadilly)

Ground floor perfumery, stationery and leather goods, wigs and haberdashery, kitchenware and food...going up

If there ever was a quintessential department store, Simpsons of Piccadilly was it. Built in 1936 this six storey store sold most traditional clothing for ladies and gentlemen in a most traditional manner. They pioneered ready-to-wear suits and shirts, back in an age when made-to-measure tailoring was still very much the norm, always with reverential customer service. Alas by the 1990s Simpson had become something of an anachronism, even down Piccadilly, and the store finally closed its doors five years ago (report of the last days here). Waterstones the booksellers have moved in since, opening the largest book store in Europe. Well worth a regular lunchtime browse for those of us who work round here, but somehow not quite the same as having your inside leg checked. Bowblog went for a visit recently, checking out the grand entrance, sweeping central staircase and miniature lifts, complete with photos.

First floor telephones, gents ready-made suits, shirts, socks, ties, hats, underwear and shoes...going up

Simpson's most famous employee was comedy writer Jeremy Lloyd, a junior in the gents department in the 1940s. 25 years later he was looking for a script idea to sell to BBC comedy bosses and Are You Being Served was the result. Simpson's archaic work practices, staff pecking order and fawning customer service were fertile ground for a sitcom, and characters such as Captain Peacock ("Are you free?") and Mr Humphries ("I'm free!") were firmly grounded in Jeremy's real life experience. Scriptwriting partner David Croft suggested adding a Ladies Intimate Apparel department, bringing us the outrageous bouffant Mrs Slocombe ("Having a bath at six o'clock in the morning played havoc with my pussy!"). AYBS wasn't an instant hit, first creeping onto our screens when sports schedules cleared during the 1972 Munich Olympics hostage crisis. But the public eventually loved it, both at home and abroad, and the sitcom ran for 10 seasons with audiences peaking at 22 million. Simpson may have long closed, but its spirit lives on at Grace Brothers. (UK Gold, Wednesdays, 7pm)

Second floor carpets, travel goods and bedding, material, soft furnishings, restaurant and teas. Going down!

Famous places down the street where I work
St James's Church (197 Piccadilly)

One of the few churches outside the City to be designed by Sir Christopher Wren.
Consecrated in 1684 as the parish church of the new district of St James.
Poet and artist William Blake was baptised here.
Plain on the outside, huge and splendid on the inside.
Contains woodwork created by master carver Grinling Gibbons.
Badly bombed during the Second World war.
Often holds concerts, especially at lunchtime.
A small craft market is held in the paved churchyard most days of the week.
onionbag blogger recommends "the nice quiet graveyard / garden that is good for escaping the lunchtime rush".
A couple of years ago I saw Dame Judy Dench buying her charity Christmas cards here. Respect.
"I can hardly think it practicable to make a single room so capacious, with pews and galleries, as to hold 2,000 persons, and all to hear the service and see the preacher. I endeavoured to effect this in building the parish church of St James’s, which I presume is the most capacious, with those qualifications, that hath yet been built" (Christopher Wren)
Church website here, full history here.

Famous streets parallel to the street where I work
Jermyn Street

Most of us wear normal clothes from places like Next, M&S, fcuk or the charity shop. But some people live in a clothing netherworld and buy bespoke clothes from Jermyn Street, and these people scare me. Jermyn Street is timewarp tailoring, with gentlemanly shops selling gentlemen's outfits and gentlemen's accessories to gentlemen. Mostly posh, old, rich gentlemen from the deepest shire counties who still think that tweed is in fashion, that brogues are de rigeur and that beige is cutting edge. Here you can still buy a deerstalker hat, be fitted for a pinstripe blazer, slip on some sensible footwear, sniff out some musky cologne or get your balding locks tended by a traditional wet-shave barber. And everything's really really expensive too. Yes, that panama hat in the photo really is half price at £69.00.

Jermyn Street is especially famous for shirts. This street is for shirts what Savile Row is for suits and jackets. None of your normal navy blue polyester shirts, oh no, these shirts scream class, breeding and colour-blindness. There are pink shirts, blue shirts, pink shirts with blue stripes, blue shirts with pink stripes, pinky-blue shirts with deckchair-style stripes, pink shirts with blue collars, blue shirts with pink collars... and that's before you start on the yellow, orange, green, check, gingham, herringbone and tattersall. And don't forget the complete set of matching ties, a wide variety of expensive cufflinks and either stiff collars or collar-stiffeners. It's pure sartorial elegance, but at a price. (And <cough> I only bought six of my work shirts from here, the rest came from Next. I'm quite smart sometimes)

Famous places down the street where I work
BAFTA (195 Piccadilly)

That's the British Academy of Film and Television Arts to you, the bunch of media types who organise big and small screen award ceremonies in in Spring every year. You'd never guess from outside that the 19th century terrace beside St James's Church houses two preview theatres at second floor level, one of which is big enough to seat 213 people. Members and their guests only thank you, and please remember it's the done thing to stay seated right until the end of the credits.

Virtual tour here, membership handbook here.

Famous places down the street where I work
Hatchards (187 Piccadilly)

Hatchards is the oldest surviving booksellers in London, founded in 1797 and with customers including Disraeli, Oscar Wilde, Lord Byron and me. Visiting Hatchards is reminiscent of being inside a rambling old house, with six floors of little rooms all linked together curling round a central staircase. There's a good range of books on the shelves, not just your usual corporate bookshop fodder, which is great. And this is also rather a posh bookshop. Those two gentlemen in the photo standing outside in their grey slacks really aren't Hatchards target audience at all, oh no. Hatchards specialise more in the sort of hardbacks that would look good on the bookshelves of the library in the west wing of one's stately mansion. History (especially royal history), biography (especially upper class biography), cookery (especially chefs with double-barreled surnames) and gardening (especially books to buy for one's gardener).

The gardening connection is particularly appropriate because it was here, exactly 200 years ago, that seven friends met to found the Horticultural Society of London. Two of these friends were John Wedgwood (of pottery fame) and Sir Joseph Banks (scientist and naturalist who sailed with Captain Cook). Prince Albert became President in 1858, since when this Horticultural Society has been officially Royal. Nowadays the RHS is responsible for the Chelsea Flower Show, a number of big gardens around the country and generally doing good in the world of horticulture. I'm sure Hatchards would be able to sell you a history of the organisation, just don't wear your best gardening clothes when you visit.

Famous places down the street where I work
Fortnum & Mason (181 Piccadilly)

If the Supermarket League has Aldi and Lidl at the bottom, then it has Fortnum and Mason at the top. You'll not find value beans, cheap carrier bags and wonky trolleys here, but exclusive comestibles, immaculate shelves and fawning doormen. The whole ground floor of this grand retail outlet is full of exclusive foodstuffs, none of them in any way essential, all traditionally packaged (or at least that's what the tourists think). No expense has been spared on the decor in the food hall, ornate and golden, with the store's trademark duck-egg bluey-green prevalent throughout. Here you can still shop for 'groceries', assemble your own luxury hamper, sample a huge variety of rare teas and fork out over £150 for a tub of fish eggs caviar.

The two gentlemen you can see in the photo emerging from the clock on the building's façade are Mr Fortnum and Mr Mason. They pop out to bow to each other every hour on the hour, rather like the Trumpton clock only with a less catchy tune. Mr Fortnum was originally a footman in the service of Queen Anne and started his first business by selling the royal household's used candles. In 1707 he teamed up with his landlord, Mr Mason, to open a small grocers shop on Piccadilly. Royal connections grew stronger throughout the 18th century and soon the well-to-do of Mayfair were flocking to buy foodstuffs from around the world. There was a particular emphasis on ready-to-eat luxury dishes such as game in aspic jelly and truffled pheasant, by royal appointment. No doubt they'd have sold After Eights too had they been invented at the time.

What most tourists don't realise is that there's rather more to Fortnum and Mason these days than just food. Step off the ground floor into the deserted stairwell, ascend the narrow red carpet and there are five other floors to explore. Bring your platinum credit card, won't you. Here's a sample of what you'll find:

4th floor: the St James's Restaurant (Afternoon Tea £19.50 - sarnies, scones, clotted cream, cakes, jam, tea)
3rd floor: luggage (including Faux Crocodile), silverware (including teapots), gifts (including smoking accessories)
2nd floor: toiletries (including own brand), hair & beauty salon, bed linen, toys (including the F&M bear)
1st floor: a "relaxed haven for ladies' fashion" (yes, there are pashminas)
Ground floor: Food Hall (see above), bouquets (to order), the Patio Restaurant (strawberries and cream - £5)
Lower ground floor: china & glass, hampers, yet another restaurant (smoked salmon £24.50) ...and candles (which is, you remember, where the whole thing started)

Famous places down the street where I work
The Royal Academy (Burlington House)

Once the whole of Piccadilly used to be lined by palatial houses such as this, but now Burlington House is the only reminder of just how grand this street used to be. Really really grand. Burlington House was built in 1664 by Sir John Denham, Surveyor General to King Charles II, who was convinced that no-one would ever build in the fields and the woodland to the north and west. He was wrong. Next to own the property were a succession of Lord Burlingtons, esteemed patrons of the arts and sciences. The composer Handel lodged in the house for three years towards the end of his life while the scientist Henry Cavendish had a room here during his youth.

The Royal Academy became the main tenant in 1867, granted a 999-year-lease at a minimal rent. The building was extended to surround a courtyard with frontage onto Piccadilly, and a number of other societies moved in at the same time (Geological, Chemical, Astronomical and Linnean). It was at a meeting of the latter that Charles Darwin's paper on the Evolution of the Species was first read to an unsuspecting world. Following major renovation work earlier this year you can now stand in the long dark Reynolds Room at the front of the building and imagine the flame of Creationism flickering for the very first time. Or why not just come along to Burlington House to see the fountains, the art and what Piccadilly used to look like.

The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2004 (closes August 16th)

Every year the 80 official members of the Royal Academy open their doors to the struggling artists of the nation. They invite these artists to submit their very best paintings and arty stuff, then return most of them with a 'sorry, no thanks' note attached and fill the walls with their members' canvases instead. And boy do they fill the walls, this year with 1250 separate pieces of art filling just ten rooms. Most of the works are for sale, often at scarily exorbitant prices. Each work is labelled only by a number, not a title or artist, so you have to dip into the paperback-sized catalogue to see exactly what it is you're looking at...
"Hmm, looks like a wooden frame from a warehouse pallet, painted black then splattered with red paint. It's rubbish, literally. <checks catalogue> £105750! Scandalous!"
Fine art is just a licence to make money isn't it, art? Assuming your art is ever accepted by the establishment, that is. A couple of hours work, one gullible buyer, one vast profit. And, judging by the prices in the catalogue, it's the talentless crap that sells for the most money. Paint some brown splotches on a white background or, even better, draw a cute picture of a farmyard animal and you'll soon be rolling in it. Admittedly, however, some of the work on display at the Summer Exhibition was really very good. The best artists displayed work that was 'not for sale' and therefore managed to maintain a certain sense of respectability. On three occasions I thought "Ooh that's good", checked the artist in my little book and was pleased to discover that the piece I was looking at was an Opie, much respect. One room this year had a 'drawings' theme (including sketches by Sir Clive Woodward, Alexander McQueen and Brian Eno) which was really interesting, and there was also a room full of architectural models which I loved. Oh, and Prince Charles has a couple of watercolours on show, totally out of place alongside the more modern remainder of the collection but more than competent all the same. Nice sky, your future Majesty.

The FIFA 100 (6 Burlington Gardens, Royal Academy) (until August 31st)
Behind the Royal Academy, at the opposite end of the Burlington Arcade from Piccadilly, the football season has been open since June. FIFA are celebrating a century of international football by hosting a special photographic exhibition of soccer star mugshots in what used to be the Museum of Mankind. They asked Pélé to pick the 100 greatest living footballers from around the world (he ended up picking 125), then asked some of the world's top photographers to take their portraits. Giant portraits they are too, so while you wander the exhibition all these famous players are staring right back at you far larger than life. Quite disconcerting. Isn't Gordon Banks old? Hasn't Eric Cantona evolved? And who was that Patrick Vieira guy anyway? There are action shots, profiles, close-ups, sepia tones and black and white so it's just as much an exhibition of photographic technique as a soccer hall of fame. Beautifully done, but for just four rooms and a promotional filmstrip it's not really worth the £8 entrance fee. Still, with my Royal Academy entrance ticket I got in for free, so my visit was worth every penny.

Famous places down the street where I work
The Burlington Arcade (beside the Royal Academy)

Need some cashmere? Got an urgent desire for silverware? A craving for leather goods? Bursting for an antique? You need to rush down to the Burlington Arcade, the oldest and longest shopping arcade in Britain. But don't you dare run when you get there because running down the Burlington Arcade isn't allowed. There's no singing, no whistling, no humming, no begging, no riding of bicycles and no opening of umbrellas either. Try any of those and you'll probably be stopped by a man in a frock coat wearing a gold-braided top hat. He'd be a Beadle, a member of Britain's very first private police force dating back to the opening of the arcade in 1818. We could'nt have uncouth commoners upsetting members of the gentry out purchasing their everyday essentials, could we?

Disney filmed part of 101 Dalmatians here (the 1996 remake, obviously) and yes, it is a very Cruella De Ville kind of place. But as for me, I can't ever imagine wanting to buy anything this arcade has to offer. A 1482 map of Persia, for example, a bargain at just £24500. A shell-encrusted summer handbag, only £145. A black marble shaving stand for a mere £150. Or maybe an 18 carat gold pentop for a Parker 61 ballpoint, a snip at only £480. Window shopping though, that I can recommend... but take your time because hurrying is against the law here too.

Famous places down the street where I work
French Railways House (178 Piccadilly)

Voulez-vous acheter un billet pour le voyage de train en France? Visite ici. C'est le French Travel Centre, à côté de Fortnum et Maçon et vis-à-vis de l'Académie Royale. Le centre combine Rail Europe et Maison de la France, ce qui est une association entre le gouvernement français, les régions de la France et les membres de l'industrie du tourisme française. Voici que vous pouvez réserver vos vacances et voyager en France. J'aime le signe dehors. Il a six carrés noirs et chacun a une grande lettre blanche. Le bâtiment a été conçu par Erno Goldfinger, l'architecte célèbre avec un bureau dans Piccadilly.

Beaucoup de lignes aériennes ont des bureaux dans Piccadilly aussi. On peut réserver un vol avec Korean Air si on veut voyager une longue distance. On peut réserver un vol avec Aeroflot si on veut prendre un risque. On peut réserver un vol avec le Iran Air si on est très courageux. Tristement on ne peut pas réserver un vol avec le EgyptAir parce que le bureau s'est fermé. Je pense que un billet de retour vers Paris par Eurostar est toujours la meilleure option.

Famous streets off the street where I work
Old Bond Street

I know I've described other shopping areas along Piccadilly as posh, but Old Bond Street really is. Victoria Beckham shops here - what more evidence do you need? Top fashion houses, art galleries and other luxury retailers line this relatively short road, which becomes the equally upmarket New Bond Street a few hundred yards to the north. The two Bond Streets weren't always posh (the area was originally a swamp) but by the early 18th century this had become the place for fashionable dandies to hang out. Little has changed since. Stern-looking doormen can now be seen guarding the entrance to certain exclusive establishments, just to keep the riff-raff out. Bling bling anyone?

Full list of retailers below (not surprisingly all the websites are Flash):

De Beers (24 carat diamond geezers), Thomas Gibson, Agnews, Cartier, Marina Rinaldi, Bonpoint, Baccarrat, Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent, Gerard Darel, Bally, Watches of Switzerland, The Royal Arcade, DKNY, Chanel, Tiffany & Co.

Eastside: Watches of Switzerland, Tod's, Alexander McQueen, Dolce & Gabanna, Gina, Daks, Cesare Paciotti, Anna Molinari Blumarine, Mont Blanc, Daniel Katz, Etro, Sergio Rossi, Prada, Max Mara, Chatilla, Joseph, Salvatore Ferragamo.

Famous streets off the street where I work
St James's Street

South of Piccadilly lies the district of St James's, a gentleman's enclave on the fringes of Royal London. The area owes its exclusive status to St James's Palace, built in the 1530s by that quintessential English gentleman King Henry VIII. Monarchs lived here for the next 300 years, and the royal court also moved in after the Palace of Whitehall burnt to the ground in 1698. It's not a particularly magnificent building on the outside, and rather cramped on the inside, so George IV chose to move out in favour of nearby Buckingham Palace. Only the Princess Royal and Princess Alexandra still choose to live here today, but St James's Palace remains the official residence of the UK sovereign.

St James's Street runs uphill from Pall Mall and the Palace to Piccadilly. It's an old street and two 18th century shops still survive, both beautifully maintained. One is Berry Brothers and Rudd the wine merchants, whose enormous cellars can hold eighteen thousand bottles of wine, and the other is Lock's the hatmakers, inventors of the original bowler hat. Almost as old are the shops of Lobb's the bootmakers and Truefitt & Hill, hairdressers by Royal Appointment to the Duke of Edinburgh (so they can't be kept particularly busy).

18th century St James' Street was also home to a number of celebrated chocolate and coffee houses, such as White's and the Cocoa Tree, which have since evolved into exclusive gentlemen's clubs. There's Boodle's once notorious for its gambling, there's White's with its famous bow window, there's Brook's whose founder was buried under the club floor to escape creditors and there's the Conservative Carlton Club, whose members had to declare Margaret Thatcher an 'honorary man' to maintain their tradition that every Tory leader is made a life member of the club. Two years ago, when the Countryside Alliance came to the capital, hordes of rural protestors massed down St James's Street marching for Liberty, Livelihood and the right to shoot cuddly animals. The road was a sea of green Barbours and musty tweeds, and I saw many a young fogey pop into their favourite London club for lunch or a swift beverage before proceeding on their way to Whitehall. Must say, I haven't seen any of them since.

Famous statues down the street where I work
Horse and Rider (outside 70 Piccadilly)

There are surprisingly few works of public art down Piccadilly. In fact, between Eros at the top end and the Wellington Monument at the bottom, this statue is about all there is. It's called Horse and Rider, and it's stood on the corner of Dover Street and Piccadilly since 1975. The sculptor is Elisabeth Frink (1930-1993), one of the greatest 20th century British artists you've never heard of. She's particularly respected for her expressionistic figures of men and horses, of which this bronze is a particularly fine example, inspired by the wild horses of the Camargue. Lis also created work for the J F Kennedy Memorial in Dallas in 1964, was made a member of the Royal Academy in 1977 and became a Dame of the British Empire in 1982. It's sad now to see one of her best works hemmed in on the pavement by the littered tables and plastic chairs of a high street coffee chain, but at least Horse and Rider is still on public display.

Frink links: An appreciation, Audio interview, Sculpture & paintings, Brief biography, Future exhibitions

Famous places down the street where I work
The Ritz (150 Piccadilly)

Every tourist to London knows about The Ritz, but only a select few get to stay here. It's the capital's most exclusive hotel, so the management would have you believe, although that doesn't necessarily make it the best. The Ritz is huge, six stories high and then another two in the roof, towering over Piccadilly like a giant ocean liner. Top-hatted footmen guard the entrances, sneering politely at the clientele and keeping the passing rabble at bay. Take your pick from the Ritz Hotel, the Ritz Restaurant or the Ritz Club, and please don't forget to wear a tie (ladies, this probably doesn't apply to you).

The Ritz owes its existence to its main competitor - the Savoy. Richard D'Oyly Carte opened the Savoy Hotel in 1889, importing chef Auguste Escoffier and hotelier César Ritz from France to ensure its glittering success. And glittering it was. Ritz soon reckoned he could strike out on his own and so opened two eponymous hotels, the first in Paris in 1898 and the second in London in 1906. Piccadilly was the perfect location, within parading distance of all the places that high society might want to be seen, and soon famous faces from politics, stage and screen came flocking. Included on that list were Charlie Chaplin, Aristotle Onassis and Noel Coward. Every suite was decorated differently in elegant Louis XVI style and the kowtowing service was second to none.

More recently The Ritz descended into a mockery of its former self, snobbish for snobbery's sake, until rescued by the reclusive Barclay Brothers in 1995. The hotel has a ratio of two staff to every guest room, which sounds a bit excessive to me but I guess it's useful if you ever need someone to help you slip on the complimentary bathrobe while someone else fetches breakfast. You'll also find a jewellers, a gentleman's barber, a ladies hairdressers with a 7th floor view, a bar with Lalique panels and a casino with red drapes, just to save you ever having to go outside. And then there's that English institution, tea at the Ritz, a snip at £32 so long as you don't mind nibbling on cucumber sandwiches and booking weeks in advance. Crackers.

Famous places down the street where I work
Green Park

You couldn't fault this open space under the Trades Descriptions Act - it's green, and it is indeed a park. Green Park is one of London's eight Royal Parks, with 40 acres of trees and grass gently sloping down from Piccadilly to Buckingham Palace. It's a peaceful place where sport is banned, more suited to strolling, slouching and sunbathing, and at this time of year it's usually full of office workers taking an extended lunchbreak. There are fine avenues of lime and plane trees, plus a couple of fountains and a lot of deckchairs, but otherwise the park is pretty featureless.

In 1749 King George II erected a Temple of Peace here, part of the celebrations for the end of the War of Austrian Succession. The composer Handel was commanded to compose a little something and responded with the magnificent Music for the Royal Fireworks (you'll know the tune if you've ever been to a wedding). 24 oboes and 12 bassoons were assembled in the park for the first performance, along with 9 trumpets, 9 horns, 6 timpani and a lot of cannons. Unfortunately the fireworks caught light prematurely, setting fire to the temple which promptly exploded killing three onlookers and injuring hundreds of the distinguished audience. The same piece of music was played here without adverse effects a couple of years ago to accompany the Queen's Golden Jubilee fireworks, and I still hoard a bit of charred rocket I found in the park the following morning.

Famous places down the street where I work
Langan's Brasserie (Stratton House)

Sorry, more food. We're a couple of buildings north of Piccadilly here, in newly-resurfaced Stratton Street next to Green Park tube station. Langan's Brasserie is, perhaps not surprisingly, a brasserie founded by Peter Langan. Words such as 'flamboyant', 'charismatic', 'eccentric' and 'inebriated' have been used by some to describe the original proprietor (now deceased) and the interior decor reflects his personality. Michael Caine used to be co-owner here but sold up his share a few years ago. The restaurant's had its ups and downs over the last 27 years but is now on the up again, and is famous for being frequented by the famous. The English/French cuisine is affordable and of a high standard, so I'm told, should you ever fancy a night out stargazing. Yesterday's handwritten lunch menu featured calves' livers and bacon (£15.50) downstairs in the main restaurant, while the dish of the day upstairs in the Venetian Room was roast leg of lamb (£16.50). Me, I went to Benjys over the road instead and did lunch for £1.80.

Famous things down the street where I work

Piccadilly is one of those places that every tourist to London visits. That's along with Big Ben, Buck House, LondonEye, Mr Sherlock Holmes, Nelson Square, Heath Row and The Harrods. But most of these tourists seem to be here in Piccadilly. They're everywhere, and they walk at tortoise pace if they bother to walk at all. You can't walk out of Green Park tube station without bumping into some lost soul lumbering towards a nearby hotel towing a huge wheelie suitcase behind them, or a gaggle of foreign students blocking the pavement with their enormous backpacks. Tourists with strong exchange rates frequent the nearby boutiques and arcades snapping up non-essentials by the bagful, while Americans just window shop and wish the dollar was a little stronger.

And you can't walk out of Green Park station after ten o'clock in the morning without being accosted by a leaflet from the doubledecker sightseeing bus touts. This is touristbus central, with gangs of drivers and guides lined up by the ugly concrete wall alongside the park waiting ten minutes for their next scheduled service to depart. Just £16-£18 gets you a seat on an open-topped omnibus for a hop-on hop-off tour of the capital, plus a free plastic poncho if it rains. It rained the one time I took the tour, but I still refused to be seen riding through Mayfair in corporately-sponsored clothing. Of course, if you really want to see London and Piccadilly you can do it for just a quid from the top deck of a number 19 Routemaster. And who needs a tour guide barking out history over the loudspeakers when you can just print out this page and take it with you?

At the weekend, Piccadilly becomes even more of a tourist street than during the week. All the office workers are miles away back in suburbia, all the upper class are off shooting on their far-flung estates, and so the tourists have the street to themselves. And the touts (sorry, local craftsmen) take advantage of this by setting up stalls along the length of the park fence and flouting their wares to gullible passers-by. Just look at the range of oil paintings in flashy gold frames for sale on this particular stall. Perhaps you fancy a view of the Thames as a souvenir of your visit to ye olde London? Or maybe you'd prefer a cottage garden, or a veteran car, or a bowl of fruit, or any number of ghastly pieces of derivative artwork each available at a knock-down price from the shifty looking blokes parked up by the roadside? Or perhaps not. The street is trying so hard to be an English version of Montmartre, and so failing. Best avoided I think. Come here on a weekday instead, and then perhaps spend your weekends in Paris viewing some proper art.

Famous places down the street where I work
The In And Out Club (94 Piccadilly)

This rather impressive building set back from the road is (or was) Cambridge House, built in 1760 for some dull Earl. In the mid 19th century it was home to patriotic Viscount Palmerston, the oldest man ever to become Prime Minister. He used to walk from here to Westminster to work despite taking up office at 70 years of age. He was much admired by the nation but strongly disliked by Queen Victoria, who was relieved when that nice Mr Gladstone took over ten years later in 1865. Palmerston died within months, and his house was bought up by the recently-formed Naval and Military Club.
"Naval and Military Club, Piccadilly.—For officers and ex-officers of the Army and Navy. Entrance fee, £36 15s. ; annual subscription, £8 8s. Qualification: Commissioned officers in the Army, Navy, and Royal Marines on full pay, or retired on full or half-pay at the date of their names being entered in the candidates’ book... The election is by ballot of members. Thirty at least must vote, and one black ball in seven excludes." (1879)
It costs £1500 to join these days, plus an annual subscription of £810, and blackballing still occurs. The Naval & Military was nicknamed the 'In and Out Club' because of the large black letters painted on the gate posts at its entrance and exit to help direct incoming traffic. The letters are still there, although the club moved out to St James's Square five years ago. The building was subsequently snapped up by an Arab buyer, and there are now plans to transform it into a 100-room hotel. Not quite so classy now, alas.

Famous places just off the street where I work
Shepherd Market

I'd never discovered Shepherd Market before I worked down Piccadilly, which is a shame because it's a little backstreet gem. It's an irregular maze of Georgian passageways, now home to a fine selection of antique shops, restaurants and wine bars. Wander round here any lunchtime and you'll find smiling businessmen and their lady friends sat at tiny tables on the pavement enjoying some expensive nosh. You'll probably also stumble across a number of prostitutes because this off-road enclave has long been one of London's top red-light districts. Back in the 1760s Kitty Fisher charged the aristocracy 100 guineas a night to sample her special services, whereas when Jeffrey Archer picked up Monica Coghlan here two centuries later it cost him two grand and his career.

Prior to Shepherd Market being laid out in the 1730s, this area was just an expanse of open fields on the western edge of town. Here was the site of London's notorious May Fair, a drunken saturnalia from which the surrounding district now takes its name. These riotous annual celebrations lasted a full fortnight from May Day, attracting wild revellers from all over London and the home counties.
"In the areas encompassing the market building were booths for jugglers, prize-fighters, both at cudgels and back-sword, boxing-matches, and wild beasts. The sports not under cover were mountebanks, fire-eaters, ass-racing, sausage-tables, dice-tables, up-and- downs, merry-go-rounds, bull-baiting, grinning for a hat, running for a shift, hasty-pudding eaters, eel-divers, and an infinite variety of other - similar pastimes."
Within a few decades the local area became the built-up affluent suburb of 'May Fair', ill-suited to such bawdy revelry as this. The Earl of Coventry successfully petitioned Parliament to get the fair closed down, claiming that it caused an annual disturbance behind his new residence at 106 Piccadilly. The May fair was forced to uproot itself, moving eastwards to Bow where the yearly vice and violence continued unabated until the 1820s on the banks of the river Lea. But that's a local story I told you in last year's local history month...

<< click for Newer posts

click for Older Posts >>

click to return to the main page

click to return to my main blog

Powered by Blogger
lots of stuff about london

back to front page

my main blog

special features
E3 - local history month
oranges and lemons
olympic park 2007
great british roads
londoners of note
river westbourne
capital numbers
dome of doom
lea valley walk
olympics 2012
regent's canal
museums a-z
square routes
prime movers
silver jubilee
walk london
cube routes
river fleet
tube week

on this site - London places
temple bar
little britain
the Diana fountain
merton; enfield; islington
sutton; lewisham; southwark

on this site - London events
flash mob #1  #2  #3  #4
olympic torch relay
london marathon
new year's eve
open house
boat race

on this site - east London
olympics 2012
local history month
the real EastEnders
Routemaster farewell
Bow Road tube station
the old Big Brother house
the old Big Breakfast house

read the archive
Sep02  Oct02  Nov02  Dec02
Jan03  Feb03  Mar03  Apr03
May03  Jun03  Jul03  Aug03
Sep03  Oct03  Nov03  Dec03
Jan04  Feb04  Mar04  Apr04
May04  Jun04  Jul04  Aug04
Sep04  Oct04  Nov04  Dec04
Jan05  Feb05  Mar05  Apr05
May05  Jun05  Jul05  Aug05
Sep05  Oct05  Nov05  Dec05
Jan06  Feb06  Mar06  Apr06
May06  Jun06  Jul06  Aug06
Sep06  Oct06  Nov06  Dec06
Jan07  Feb07  Mar07  Apr07
May07  Jun07  Jul07  Aug07
Sep07  Oct07  Nov07  Dec07
Jan08  Feb08  Mar08  Apr08
May08  Jun08  Jul08  Aug08
Sep08  Oct08  Nov08  Dec08
Jan09  Aug09  Oct09  Dec09
back to main page

twenty london blogs
route 79
mad musings
samuel pepys
richard herring
london rubbish
over your head
rogue semiotics
scorn and noise
in the aquarium
diamond geezer
london bus page
london 2012 blog
the last bus home
london daily photo
random acts of reality
london bloggers tube map

ten london links
poverty map 1899
london map 1827
smoke magazine
urban 75 london
panoramic views
street sensation
london ancestor
hidden london
london pubs
time out

ten east london links
where i live
visit eastside
east end photos
east end history
discover public art
cockney translator
greenwich meridian
tower hamlets history
the real albert square
docklands development

ten london transport links
future transport projects
clive's tube line guides
london underground
abandoned stations
various tube maps
london bus routes
london bus maps
disused stations
london walks