Day 33 (part 2) – The Strand -Covent Garden -Savoy Place

So the second leg of this walk resumes where we left off last time, on the Strand by the Adelphi Theatre, then heads north towards Covent Garden before crossing back over the Strand to traverse the streets either side of the Savoy Hotel and running down to the Embankment.

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The origins of the Adelphi Theatre go back to 1806 when it was originally known as the Sans Pareil (without equal). The current, fourth building on the site, has been around since 1930 when it was constructed by the Pitcher Construction Company to the designs of Ernest Schaufelberg. The design was notable for the absence of any kind of curve (unusual for the thirties) and the building process attracted a great deal of public attention due to the builders frantic attempts to complete on time and avoid a punitive daily over-run penalty of £450. The venue has been home to a good number of successful productions, several of them off the Lloyd-Webber conveyer belt.

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Just a few doors further east stands the Vaudeville Theatre of which the present building is the third incarnation, opening in 1926. It has less then half the capacity of its near neighbour and therefore tends to present comedies and straight drama rather than musicals. Though it did play host to part of a then record-breaking run by the musical Salad Days in the 1950’s (a 1996 revival was rather less successful, reflecting changing tastes). Dance/performance art troupe Stomp had a five year residency here from 2002.

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Turn north up Southampton Street where in the 1870’s Vincent Van Gogh worked in the London offices of the French art dealers, Groupil et Cie, commuting from lodgings in Brixton. This clock, outside no.3, was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens in 1904 for George Newnes Limited, the publishers of such periodicals as John O’London’s Weekly and the Ladies’ Home Magazine.

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Turning left back onto Maiden Lane we find the rear of the Vaudeville Theatre which houses the Hungarian Cultural Centre (not looking particularly active it’s fair to say). 150 years before there was any theatre here the French philosopher Voltaire (1694 – 1778) spent a year living in the house that then occupied this spot – he had gone into self-imposed exile as an alternative to imprisonment in the Bastille at the instigation of the aristoctratic de Rohan family with whom he had fallen into confrontation.

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Across the road is, reputedly, the oldest restaurant in London, Rules, which was founded in 1798 by Thomas Rule to purvey “porter, pies and oysters” to a clientele of “rakes, dandies and superior intelligence’s”. Since then, it appears, just about anyone who is anyone in the literary and entertainment worlds has passed through its doors. And the menu would probably still look pretty familiar to the rakes and dandies of the Regency era.

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Retrace our steps up Bedford Street then head east towards Covent Garden plaza along Henrietta Street. Another green plaque here, this one in commemoration of the fact that Jane Austen stayed at no. 10 during 1813-14.

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Turn back down Southampton Street then left into Tavistock Street followed by a right down Burleigh Street. Squashed in between more modern buildings is the former vicarage of St Michael’s Church, dating from around 1860 and now the rectory of St Paul’s (see above). St Michael’s itself was built in 1833 on the corner with Exeter Street but demolished in 1906.

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Exeter Street runs along the back of the Strand Palace Hotel which was built in 1907 by J.Lyons & Co. to cater for those who wanted  “the maximum of luxury and comfort with the minimum of expense.” To which end they charged 5 shillings and sixpence (27p in new money) for a single room with breakfast. Even today the room rates represent pretty good value for central London. Unfortunately I am unable to unearth any information about the decoration on the bridge across the street or the clock on the rear facade of what is currently the HQ of the nuclear industry association.

Turning the corner brings us back out on to the Strand opposite a somewhat more famous hotel, the Savoy, built by Richard D’Oyly Carte – the man who brought the operas of Gilbert and Sullivan to the world – and opened in 1889. The Savoy was the first luxury hotel in Britain, with electric lights, electric lifts, en-suite bathrooms and constant hot and cold running water among its innovations. The name derives from the historic region of France (which today spreads into part of Italy and Switzerland as well) and specifically Count Peter of Savoy who was the maternal uncle of Eleanor of Provence, wife of Henry III, and accompanied her to England. Henry made Peter Earl of Richmond and gave him the land which lies between the Strand and the Thames where he built the Savoy Palace in 1263.

When D’Oyly Carte’s daughter Bridget died childless in in 1985 ownership of the hotel fell into corporate hands ending up as part of the Fairmont Hotels estate some twenty years later. I’m sure you won’t be at all surprised to learn that Fairmont Hotels is affiliated with one of the members of the Saudi Royal Family. In 2007 the Savoy closed for a complete renovation, budgeted at £100 million but ultimately costing more than twice that amount. Judging by the reviews when it reopened in 2010 the expense seems to have been worth it with the new Edwardian decor on the Thames’ side and the Art Deco stylings on the Strand side earning lavish praise. FYI – to stay in one of its 267 rooms for the night will give you enough change out of £500 for a couple of beers (though not here) and that doesn’t include breakfast.

We continue east along the Strand past the front of the Strand Palace then head south down Savoy Street which offers us our first glimpse of the river before we turn right onto Savoy Hill and then right again up Savoy Steps. In so doing we encircle the Queen’s Chapel of the Savoy. The palace of Peter of Savoy lasted barely a hundred years before being superseded by an even grander palace built by John of Gaunt who had gained control of the land via inheritance of his wife, Blanche (great-great-granddaughter of Henry III). That one had an even briefer lifespan, being burnt to the ground during the peasants’ revolt of 1381 led by Wat Tyler. The site remained semi-derelict until, at the beginning of the 16th century, King Henry VII ordered the building of a foundation hospital which included three chapels, dedicated to St John the Baptist, St Catherine and Our Lady respectively. The first of these, now known as the Queen’s Chapel, is the sole building that survives.

Continuing back down Savoy Hill towards the Embankment and then turning left onto Savoy Place we arrive outside the HQ of the Institution of Engineering and Technology (or just IET as it prefers to call itself) which has an impressive 167,000 members in 150 countries. There’s a statue of our old friend Michael Faraday (1791 – 1867) outside and a suitably tech-inspired art installation in the lobby. A carved inscription on the facade of the building notes the fact that this was the original central London home of the BBC from 1923 to 1932 (when Broadcasting house opened).

We next head back west along Savoy Place then turn north up Carting Lane which runs up to the back of the Savoy Theatre. D’Oyly Carte built the first theatre here in 1881 eight years prior to putting up the hotel on the adjacent lot. A green plaque on the back wall commemorates the fact that that original theatre was the first public building in the world with electric lighting. The building was reconstructed at the end of the twenties and the new Savoy Theatre opened in October 1929 with a production of The Gondoliers (of course). Then in 1990 during another renovation the building was almost completely gutted by fire. Against expectation it arose, Pheonix-like, from the ashes just three years later with an extra storey housing, inter alia, a swimming pool above the stage.

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A few steps further on we reach the Coal Hole, another old haunt of mine, which is rumored to occupy what was the coal cellar for the Savoy Hotel in its early years. The pub is Grade II listed but despite its proximity to the Savoy Hotel is no longer part of it.

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Turning left along the Strand again we pass another green plaque; this one honouring the fact that the Royal Air Force had its original headquarters in the Hotel Cecil, which then stood on this plot on the Strand, from 1918 to 1919.

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Turn south again down Adam Street where at no.8 there is a blue plaque celebrating one of the pioneers of the industrial revolution, Sir Richard Arkwright (1732 – 1792). Arkwright was not, as I erroneously recalled from schooldays, the inventor of the spinning jenny. The patents which brought him his fortune were the spinning frame (later re-dubbed the water frame) and the rotary carding  engine that transformed raw cotton into cotton lap. His factories employed a high percentage of children (aged 7 and up) and although he allowed employees a week’s holiday a year they were not allowed to leave the village in which he housed them. When he died aged 59 that fortune was worth £500,000 (which apparently is only equivalent to about £68m today).

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Adam Street leads down to Adelphi Terrace which runs along the rear of the Grade II listed Adelphi. The construction of this purpose-built office building, 1936-8, by Stanley Hamp of Colcutt and Hamp required an act of Parliament (the Adelphi Act of 1933) due to the covenants on the site imposed by a statute of 1771 relating to the original development of the area by John, Robert, James and William Adam from 1772 (Adelphoi is Greek for brothers). The Act gave permission for the demolition of 24 Georgian houses built by the Adams, as well as placing conditions on the height of the new building and requiring the developers to maintain and widen public thoroughfares. Although it sparked controversy at the time of its erection the Adelphi is now regarded as one of London’s premier Art Deco buildings. The four giant allegorical relief figures on the corners of the Embankment front representing west-east are ‘Dawn’ (by Bainbridge Copnall), ‘Contemplation’ (by Arthur J Ayres), ‘Inspiration’ (by Gilbert Ledward), and ‘Night’ (by Donald Gilbert). Turning north up Roberts Street and right onto John Adam Street brings us to the front entrance with its carved reveal panels by Newbury Abbot Trent depicting scenes of industry. However there seems to be some confusion as to whether the building represents 1-10 John Adam Street or 1-11 (perhaps it’s a subtle tribute to Spinal Tap).

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Across the road is the home of The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce which, I have to confess, I had never heard of before. The RSA was founded in 1754  by William Shipley (1715 – 1803) with the central credo that the creativity of ideas could enrich social progress. The first meeting was held at Rawthmell’s Coffee House in Covent Garden. Fellows of the RSA over the years have included Samuel Johnson, Benjamin Franklin and William Hogarth. Their current mission statement reads “We believe that all human beings have creative capacities that, when understood and supported, can be mobilised to deliver a 21st century enlightenment.” Amen to that.

The house itself is a survivor of the development by the Adam Brothers in the 1770’s and it’s our final port of call on today’s journey.

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