Another brief one in terms of distance but a lot of stuff to pack in nonetheless. Area covered is split into two main sections; firstly the territory to the north of Covent Garden in between Long Acre and High Holborn and then the streets squeezed into the angle formed by the eastern side of Charing Cross Road and Shaftesbury Avenue. Along the way there is a visit to the Freemasons’ Hall , “Tin Pan Alley” and the church of St-Giles-In-The-Fields, which gives its name to this district.
We start on Kingsway and head briefly west along Great Queen Street before turning north up Newton Street. This ends at High Holborn where we turn west again before veering left into Smart’s Place which leads into Stukeley Street. Formerly known as Goldsmith’s Street this was the site of the original permanent residence of the City Lit. , one of five literary institutes set up after WW1 to cater to the need for adult learning provision. City Lit moved in here in the late twenties but had outgrown the original building within a few years so that was demolished and a new purpose built facility constructed. Opened in 1939 by Poet Laureate John Masefield, the new building contained a theatre, concert hall and gym and remained the home of City Lit. until 2005 when they moved to new premises in the Covent Garden area.
Just round the corner on Smart’s Place is what remains of the almshouses built here by the parishes of St Giles and St George Bloomsbury in 1895.
Westward again on Macklin Street brings us out onto the northern stretch of Drury Lane. We’re on the fringes of “Theatreland” here and first of the three (current) theatres we pass on our travels today is the New London Theatre. One of the most modern of London’s West End theatres this was built in 1973 on the site of the old Winter Garden Theatre. Probably best known for hosting the original run of Cats from 1981 to 2002 it’s currently playing the critically-lauded revival of Showboat.
So we turn east down Parker Street and make our way back to Great Queen Street. Heading west again we pass the Grade II listed Grand Connaught Rooms at nos. 61-63. Currently a conference, weddings and events venue owned by a hotel group this retains the façade of the Freemason’s Tavern, Britain’s first Grand Lodge, which originally stood here (until 1905).
On that façade are two plaques commemorating events which took place at the Freemasons’ Tavern – the creation of the Football Association in 1863 and the first geological society in 1807. It was also where the Anti-Slavery Society was founded apparently. Surely you’d want to make more noise about that than the geological thing (or the FA for that matter).
Which brings us to the Freemasons’ Hall and to be honest I hadn’t expected any part of this to be accessible but there is a Museum of Freemasonry on the first floor that you can visit free of charge as well as an extensive library both of which are full of some quite remarkable artefacts. The current art-deco behemoth is the third incarnation of the Freemasons’ Hall on the site since 1775 and was built during 1927-32 in honour of the Freemasons who died in the Great War. Its Grand Temple seats up to 1,700 – that’s a lot of aprons.
Now I think it’s fair to say that the Freemasons have enjoyed a somewhat ambivalent reputation throughout their history. I myself have shared some of the prejudices inspired by the whole regalia, funny handshake and initiation ceremony schtick – not to mention the secret brotherhood aspect that (allegedly) wields influence in the upper echelons of the police, the judiciary and certain political institutions. In the interests of balance therefore it needs to be noted that the Masons is a secular (and supposedly non-political) organisation with all members free to practice their own religion; it emphasises personal moral responsibility and does a lot of work for charity. The United Grand Lodge of England (UGLE) is of course exclusively male. There is an Order of Women Freemasons which has been around since the turn of the 20th century but UGLE doesn’t officially recognize it (though they did acknowledge its existence in 1999 which was nice of them). However you wouldn’t necessarily gather that from the materials on display in the museum which include a number of items relating to women freemasons. I haven’t room to go into the history of Freemasonry but you can read up on it here.
Just a couple of things to note from the slide show above: that chair (Grand Master’s Throne) is one of three commissioned in 1791 to mark the election of the Prince of Wales (later George IV) as Grand Master of the Moderns Lodge, the silver elephant is a cigar lighter made from smelted rupees and one of three gifted by an Indian Maharajah to the Lodge of Humility with Fortitude, the pentagon symbol I can find no information on but I suspect is a stand-in for the sacred pentagram (five pointed star inside a pentagon inside a circle) with its Da Vinci Code associations. You probably also saw today’s reflection of the day (“selfie” has now been retired).
Should you ever seek to become a mason yourself then all the gear can be found in the Central Regalia emporium, conveniently situated just across the road. Special offer on masonic candles at the moment.
Also opposite is the HQ of the Royal Masonic Trust for Boys and Girls one of the four charitable institutions established by the Freemasons in the 18th century.
We’re back up Drury Lane again next then turning left down Shorts Gardens as far as Endell Street. The Cross Keys pub with its splendidly ornate exterior has occupied no. 31 Endell Street since 1848 and by all accounts is well worth a visit.
Another place worth trying is the Poetry Place (aka the Poetry Café) on Betterton Street which runs back to Drury Lane.
A circuit of Dryden Street, Arne Street and Shelton Street finds us back on Endell Street at the northern end of which resides the Swiss Church (or Eglise Suisse if you prefer). Just about every major European nationality seems to have established its own ecclesiastical home here in London. This one dates from 1762 and has occupied this site since 1855 though has undergone major rebuilding after WWII and between 2008 and 2011 when the architects, appropriately enough, were the practice of Christ and Gantenbein. True to national form the all-white interior is the epitome of calm reflection (though I believe they will be showing Switzerlands Euro 2016 fixtures live in here.)
Next door, on the corner with High Holborn, is the former St Giles National School built in 1859 to the design of Edward Middleton Barry.
Across the other side of High Holborn is our second theatre of the day, the Shaftesbury, which opened in 1911 as the New Prince’s Theatre. Longest run here seems to have been the musical Hair which started in 1968 and was curtailed in 1973 (two short of its 2,000th performance) when part of the ceiling fell in. Despite the threat of redevelopment in the immediate aftermath of this the theatre survived and was granted listed status a year later. It is currently host to yet another jukebox musical in the form of Motown though perhaps one with a classier songbook to draw on than most.
Head past the theatre eastward along High Holborn before turning left up Museum Street and taking a dog-leg round West Central Street which is a cherishably rare corner of scruffiness in the heart of town.
Having emerged onto New Oxford Street we cut back down the first few yards of Shaftesbury Avenue before skirting round the back of the theatre along Grape Street, apparently so-named because it once ran alongside the vineyard belonging to St Giles Hospital.
Leave the theatre behind and make our way west via Bloomsbury Street, Dyott Street, Bucknall Street and Earnshaw Street bypassing the Crossrail mayhem and the redevelopment of Centrepoint.
This brings us to Denmark Street which, as noted in the intro, was colloquially known as the UK’s “Tin Pan Alley” for much of the twentieth century. The first music publisher set up home here in 1911. That was Lawrence Wright who founded the Melody Maker in 1926. In 1952 the New Musical Express was also started from an office here and during that same decade music publishers and songwriters took over most of the street.
In the sixties groups who began to pen their own material and the predominance of recorded music helped to bring about a decline in both music publishing and songwriting for hire. Taking their place, a number of recording studios opened including Regent Sound Studio at no.4. This was where the Rolling Stones recorded their first album in 1964, under the guiding hand of manager Andrew Loog Oldham.
In the mid 1970’s the Sex Pistols lived above in the upper floor of no.6 and rehearsed in its basement. Graffiti by Johnny Rotten depicting other members of the band was recently uncovered and has inspired the Department of Culture to grant Grade 2 listed status to the building. Just a little bit of that spirit still lives on.
In 1992 the last of the publishers moved out and the focus shifted to musical instrument vendors (principally guitars). In the wake of Crossrail plans were drawn up for a redevelopment of the street which though committed to preserving the fabric of the street brought protests from those concerned that it would wreck the character of the place and force out many of the existing businesses. This struggle is still ongoing but for now at least the guitar shops seem to be hanging on tenaciously.
Double back down Denmark Street and you arrive at St-Giles-In-The-Field church. This was originally the site of a church leper hospital founded in 1101 by Queen Mathilda, wife of King Henry 1. The present church was designed and built in the Palladian style (after the 16th century Italian architect Andrea Palladio) in 1730-34 by Henry Flitcroft, who went on to design Woburn Abbey. Back in the day St Giles was the last church en route to the gallows at Tyburn and the churchwardens paid for the condemned to be given a draft of ale from the Angel pub next door before their execution. Whether or not Oliver Plunkett, Archbishop of Armagh was granted this benefice before being hung, drawn and quartered in 1681 and then buried in the churchyard is unknown.
Among the many memorials inside the church are those to Richard Penderell who accompanied Charles II on his flight from Cromwell and the watchmaker Thomas Earnshaw (1749 – 1829). There is also the tomb of Lady Frances Kniveton who was the daughter of Sir Robert Dudley (1574 – 1649) the illegitimate son of the man of the same name who was the first Earl of Leicester and favourite of Elizabeth I.
After this it’s time for lunch, an Indonesian pulled chicken satay salad from one of the food stalls in the churchyard. While I eat this on a bench in the grounds the nearby bin is visited by a crow who has worked out that a meal is to be had by pulling out the discarded food trays and bags and spilling their remaining contents on the ground. Clever things crows. Your average pigeon hasn’t got a handle on that yet.
Head away from the church down Flitcroft Street which takes us to the Pheonix Garden – a community garden and registered charity, managed by volunteers drawn from the local community and workers in the area. It’s currently closed for building works but is due to re-open this summer (2016).
Stacey Street runs alongside the garden passing Pheonix Street with its eponymous theatre. I don’t think I’d ever been down here before and so had only seen the theatre from the Charing Cross Road side which presents the main entrance and a incongruously functional office block sandwiched between it and the similarly neo-classical but superior Pheonix Street façade. The Pheonix Theatre was built on the site where the Alcazar music hall previously stood and opened in 1930 with a production of Noel Coward’s Private Lives. The exterior was designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, Bertie Crewe and Cecil Masey, whilst the interior, often considered to be one of London’s finest, was designed by director Theodore Komisarjevsky in an Italianate style with golden wall engravings and plush, red carpets. Currently showing, as you can see, is the classic Guys and Dolls.
Returning to Stacey Street we head a short way further south to New Compton Street which is as non-descript as Old Compton Street is exuberant. At the end of this we turn right then right again down Shaftesbury Avenue. On the west side we pass by the institution that is Forbidden Planet, which started out as a comic shop in Denmark Street in 1978 but now styles itself as a “cult entertainment megastore” (yes that’s a “c” missing from the left-hand side of the picture not an “ad”).
And a bit further down is what I will always think of as the ABC Shaftesbury Avenue but was rebranded in 2001 as the Odeon Covent Garden . The building, which opened in 1931, actually started life as the Saville Theatre (perhaps just as well that didn’t last). The sculptured frieze which extends for nearly 40 metres along the façade of the building is by Gilbert Bayes and represents ‘Drama Through The Ages.’ In the sixties the theatre was often leased by the Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein, who promoted gigs there by the likes of The Who, The Bee Gees and the Jimi Hendrix Experience as well as the Fab Four themselves. In 1969 the theatre was bought by ABC Cinemas (then owned by EMI) and converted into the 2-screen ABC1 and ABC2. The takeover of ABC by Odeon Cinemas in 2001 resulted in a further conversion into four screens and the change to its current name (ignoring the fact that it can’t by any stretch of the imagination be considered to fall within the borders of Covent Garden).
And with that it’s Roll Credits for today.