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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Day 33 (part 1) – National Gallery – St Martin’s Lane – The Strand

Today’s walk starts out with a quick tour around the National Gallery then meanders up St Martin’s Lane to explore the streets in between Leicester Square and Covent Garden before heading east along the Strand and then wending its way back west through the streets adjacent to the north bank of the river. (There’s so much of note crammed into this part of town though that I’ve split this into two posts again).

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The National Gallery has its origins in the 1824 purchase for £57,000 of the banker, John Julius Angerstein’s, collection of 38 paintings to form the core of a new national art collection. In 1831 the King’s Mews on the north side of Trafalgar Square was chosen as the site for a permanent building to house this collection. The original architect was William Wilkins and construction was completed in 1838. The building wasn’t exactly garlanded with praise however and thirty years later another architect, E.M Barry, was asked to submit designs for a reconstruction. In the end this just resulted in an extension which included the now iconic dome. In 1907 five new galleries were built at the rear and a further extension on the north side was completed in 1975. 1991 saw the opening of the Sainsbury Wing on the west side; sponsored by the eponymous supermarket magnates and the inspiration for the Prince of Wales’ notorious “monstrous carbuncle” rant against modern architecture.

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Probably the most famous work in the collection (and certainly the one which prompts the most selfies) is Van Gogh’s Sunflowers though personally I prefer his Crabs (so to speak).

 

The following slideshow features a selection of the 3o paintings which the Gallery itself classes as highlights of the collection including Velazquez’s “Rokeby Venus”, Cezanne’s Les Grandes Beigneuses (immortalised as “the big bathers” in the Peter Cook and Dudley Moore sketch, still priceless after nearly fifty years – the sketch that is) and Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire subject of a recent episode of Melvyn Bragg’s excellent In Our Time programme on Radio 4 and due to appear on the new plastic £20 note when it arrives.

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Just about the only one of these artists I wasn’t previously familiar with is Paolo Uccello (1397 – 1475) who has instantly become my early renaissance artist of preference – partly because his work seems to eschew that era’s ubiquitous depictions of the Madonna and child. His rendering of Saint George and the Dragon is one of my three top picks from the works currently on show.

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Leaving the Gallery we head east along the north side of Trafalgar Square towards St Martin-in-the-Fields Church, running the gauntlet of two Yodas and one Imperial Stormtrooper.

St Martin’s  originated on this site in the late Norman era. That first church was built over in 1542 at the instigation of Henry VIII. His church was demolished in turn in 1721 and replaced by the current building designed by James Gibbs. In the 20th century St Martin’s has been at the forefront of the fight against homelessness as well as championing other social and humanitarian causes. It is also renowned for its programme of music concerts which dates back to the age of Handel and Mozart. This includes at least a couple of free (donation suggested) lunchtime recitals every week. Below you can see Russian pianist, Anna Schreider, limbering up for her performance of Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons which I popped back to listen in full ( a somewhat chastening experience for someone struggling to learn to play the wretched instrument).

A little way further up St Martin’s Place is a monument to Edith Cavell (1865 – 1915) the British nurse executed by a German firing squad during WW1 after aiding the escape of 200 Allied soldiers from occupied Belgium. The charge was treason even though Edith was not a German national and had also helped German soldiers escape fire – bastards !

Surprised to see Count Arthur Strong paying his respects.

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We continue up Charing Cross Road towards Leicester Square tube and then cut through Cecil Court. The fact that this prime location is still lined with independent vintage book and music shops implies that there is some kind of special arrangement going on with the rents – and long may that continue. At the turn of the 20th century Cecil Court earned the soubriquet Flicker Alley due to the number of businesses associated with the embryonic British Fil Industry that found a home here.

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Emerge on to St Martin’s Lane and turn left to arrive at one of the three theatres on the street, the Noel Coward Theatre. This one opened in 1903 and was designed by W.G.R Sprague for Sir Charles Wyndham; the same combination responsible for the Wyndham’s Theatre on Charing Cross Road which was completed four years earlier. It was originally (somewhat unimaginatively) known as the New Theatre, then in 1973 became the Albery Theatre and finally in 2006 was renamed in honour of the eponymous actor, playwright, director and flamboyant wit.

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On the other side of St Martin’s Court is the Grade II Listed Salisbury pub named after the three-time 19th century Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury. The pub is notable for its art nouveau interiors and was used in the 1961 film Victim starring Dirk Bogarde and Sylvia Sims; the first British feature to mention the word “homosexual”.

A few steps further south another branch of Browns Restaurants occupies what used to be the Westminster County Courts and across the road what was once the Green Man & French Horn pub is now a French restaurant of the same name.

Then on the west side it’s the second of those three theatres, the Duke of York’s. This was the first one built on St Martin’s Lane, in 1892, and was originally named the Trafalgar Square Theatre. The change of name, in honour of the future King George V, came just three years later along with a rather hasty re-opening. Between 1980 and 1992 the theatre was owned by Capital Radio before becoming part of the ATG estate.

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Opposite is the imposing London Coliseum (though not quite as imposing as the one in Rome), home of the English National Opera Company. The Coliseum opened in 1904 as the London Coliseum Theatre of Varieties having been designed by Frank Matcham for the impresario Oswald Stoll who intended it to be the “largest and finest music hall” of the age. Large it certainly was; its 2,359 seats mean it is still the largest theatre in London. At the time of construction it was the only theatre in Europe with lifts to its upper levels. In 1908 it apparently hosted a cricket match between Middlesex and Surrey (I’m still trying to get my head round that one). Then from 1931 onward it transitioned from a variety to a playhouse theatre and post WW2 housed successful runs of the likes of Annie Get Your Gun and Guys and Dolls. In 1968 the Sadlers Wells Opera Company moved in and then in 1974 changed its name to ENO. In recent times, despite many acclaimed productions, ENO has been struggling financially, mainly due to the pressures of trying to fill such a large auditorium. It’s probably also fair to say that it doesn’t have quite the same cachet for the traditional opera-going audience as the Royal Opera House. I know which I prefer, though there are times when I opera definitely sounds better if you can’t follow the words.

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At the bottom end of the street is the Chandos pub c.1839 which is distinguished by the mechanical statue of a barman opening a barrel perched on a balcony at the top of the building.

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We head back up St Martin’s Lane and cut right down Brydges Place – one of the narrowest alleys in London – into Bedfordbury (it’s just called that and that’s the only interesting thing about it).

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Cut back again down May Court and then head up to the top of St Martin’s Lane and take a right into New Row. Couple of pubs here that I used to frequent back in the day – the Roundhouse, whose address is actually 1 Garrick Street and which isn’t actually round, more of a semi-octagon and the White Swan (in the background below) occupying a Grade II listed building from the turn of the 18th century and which features in Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey novel, Murder Must Advertise.

Next we turn southward down Bedford Street and arrive at the front entrance to St Paul’s, the Actors’ church, which we touched on previously in Day 30. The interior is filled with plaques commemorating a host of departed great British thespians as well as a memorial stone for Thomas Arne (1710 – 1778), the composer of Rule Britannia, who is buried here.

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Nxt up we turn right onto Chandos Place then again onto Agar Street. On the west side here stands Charing Cross Police Station. The core of this building was erected in 1831 as a new home for the Royal West London Infirmary which was then renamed Charing Cross Hospital. The hospital was extended several times over the next two hundred years and was used for the treatment of war casualties in both World Wars. When it became part of the NHS in 1948 it was as a teaching hospital but even in this guise it had outgrown the premises by the early sixties and in 1973 was relocated to a new hospital in Fulham that was ten years in the building. Strangely enough it kept the Charing Cross name. The Agar Street building remained vacant for many years until the Met took it over in the 1990s.

At the junction with the Strand we find Zimbabwe House. This was built in 1908 as the first headquarters of the British Medical Association. The architect was Charles Holden and the series of 18 8ft high naked figures that adorn the exterior were the (at the time) controversial  work of the sculptor Jacob Epstein (1880 – 1959).  The National Vigilance Association (a Victorian version of Mary Whitehouse’s NVALA) and the Evening Standard published their opposition to anyone having to see the sculptures, which caused people to flood into London to do just that. Artists and critics were equally vocal in support of Epstein and the BMA decided to withstand the pressure to remove the sculptures. However, in the 1930’s, the Rhodesian High Commission, which had bought the building in 1923, decided that the sculptures were no longer appropriate. Under the pretext that their protruding parts (including heads) were potentially dangerous the sculptures were hacked into the state you see below. After UDI in 1965, Rhodesia House, as it had been renamed, became merely a Representative Office with no official diplomatic status, until the triumph of Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF in 1980 and the country re-entry into the Commonwealth as Zimbabwe with fully recognized independent status.

Veer off west again to cover the length of William IV Street then double back and turn south down Adelaide Street to arrive on  the Strand opposite Charing Cross Station.

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Head east along the Strand before turning north again up the bottom section of Bedford Street then continue eastward along Maiden Lane. On the site of the Porterhouse craft beer emporium once stood the house in which our old friend John Mallord William Turner (1775 – 1851) was born.

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A short way further along Maiden Lane, Bull Inn Court leads down to the Nell Gwynne public house, built on the site of the Old Bull Inn and named after Charles II’s most infamous mistress of course. Had I known beforehand that this is one of the few pubs that still has a proper working jukebox I would definitely have gone in for a drink.

In 1897, William Terris, a well-known actor of the day, was murdered yards from the pub by a stage hand from the neighbouring Adelphi Theatre which is where we shall resume in part 2.

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Bobble hat, anorak and shorts – what were you thinking mate ?