ELEPHANT & CASTLE walk to REGENT’S PARK
2 1/2 hours
The Bakerloo line owns its name to the two train termini it linked, Baker Street and Waterloo. It was built in 1906 and ran between Baker Street and Elephant & Castle (more convenient than Waterloo due to the lack of space for sidings near Waterloo). It was extended to Paddington in 1913 to provide a link with two additional train termini. It was then extended in 1917 to Queen’s Park where trains could join the existing suburban train line to Watford. The company experimented with different northern termini over the years; the present terminus in Harrow & Wealdstone is the solution chosen in 1989.
Because the Bakerloo line uses the tracks and stations of the suburban train line between Euston and Watford north of Queen’s Park, I offer only Bakerloo line walks for the section south of Queen’s Park. For the northern section, please look at my Euston network walks 2 and 3.
Routing note: This walk connects at nearly all stations with a number of other walks. The most convenient one is obviously Bakerloo line walk 2 starting in Regent’s Park. A nice alternative may be to just have a stroll in Regent’s Park after the present walk.
The walk passes two large museums and time spent inside is not included in my time estimate. The Imperial War Museum may take you between 30 minutes and 2 hours depending on how keen you are on the glorious British army, its uniforms and weapons. The National Gallery is worth a full day inside if you like paintings.
Special request: Some of the pictures in this specific post are not by me. Do not infringe the copyright of these persons and ask me first.
ELEPHANT & CASTLE (Bakerloo line)
Elephant & Castle (Bakerloo line) Underground station
The terminus opened in 1906. There is also an Underground station using the same name on the Northern line, opened in 1890, but it is in a different location and the interchange is inconvenient. There have been occasional discussions about extending the Bakerloo line beyond its current terminus towards Camberwell or Lewisham, but this remains very tentative.
The station building is a local landmark in the Edwardian style with a typical combination of red bricks and cream-coloured stone. As it is a functional building (it is used for Underground offices and accommodation), there are no fancy scrolls and statues. The lower level is the actual Underground station and has the conspicuous appearance that architect Leslie Green developed in 1903. His design was used on three different Underground lines as they belonged to the same group of companies. It involves striking dark red terracotta tiles covering the whole ground floor. Unfortunately, the heavy workload caused a burnout and the architect died very young just after finishing the plans for all the stations.
Exit the station on London Road
R London Road towards Waterloo and central London
The name of the road surprised me at first as you are already in central London (transport zone 1). Obviously, the name dates back to the time when London only comprised Westminster and the City on the left bank of the Thames while the right bank was the city of Southwark. The past importance of this is reflected in the fact that there still is a cathedral in London and a separate cathedral in Southwark.
The road ends at St George’s Circus, a large roundabout
St George’s Circus with obelisk
The crossroads is an interesting historical location. It was the first purpose-built road junction in London back in 1771. The obelisk marks the distance of one mile from both Palace Yard and London Bridge. It was originally equipped with four oil lamps. The area was a middle-class suburb at the start but became increasingly industrial before decaying in the second half of the 20th century. It is now dominated by nondescript University buildings.
Former Southwark library
A few steps to the east in Borough Road, you can have a short look at a former library built in 1904. There is an interesting relief directly above the entrance door with very nice Arts & Crafts details. An other relief adorns the gable above the door and shows St George killing the dragon, a neo-medieval fancy that would have pleased the composer Wagner as much as it pleased nostalgic Arts & Crafts devotees. The building is a listed monument but does not seem to be in use currently.
L Lambeth Road
At the corner with St George’s Road, you reach St George’s Cathedral. It is not an Anglican cathedral (this is located close to London Bridge), it is the seat of the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Southwark. The church was built in 1848 in light brown bricks typical of the period and not in stone, and it does not have the usual pointed roof you would expect on a neo-gothic building.
St George’s Roman Catholic cathedral
St George’s Cathedral
This is because the church had to be rebuilt in 1958 due to bomb damage; for cost reasons, unnecessary external ornaments were avoided. The view inside is much more traditional and actually a bit boring compared to what you may expect from a Roman Catholic cathedral. Interestingly, this is my impression now while I noted on visiting that the gothic sense of looking upwards for salvation through God in Heaven was conveyed very convincingly.
Lambeth Road then passes on the L Geraldine Mary Hamsworth Park and the Imperial War Museum located in the park
Imperial War Museum
The park was landscaped in 1934 on ground gifted by the freehold owner when the hospital that had been built here was decommissioned and demolished. The park itself is not very impressive, being mainly lawn and a few rose bushes. In line with other parks in this multinational borough, there are a few pointers to human rights, in particular a so-called Tibetan Garden. There is no remarkable tradition of gardening in Tibet and the garden is more a symbolic reference to Tibet. You can read a few inspiring words by the Dalai Lama on a plaque and look at appropriate sculptures. In addition to the “Tibetan Peace Garden”, there is also a “World Garden”.
The park is also the setting for the very imposing building of the Imperial War Museum, one of the very few locations in London still referring to the colonial empire. The extremely pompous front with huge columns and an octogonal tower with a dome was actually less conspicuous when it was the central pavilion of a very large hospital, the notorious “Bedlam” (from the original reference to “Bethlehem”), the main psychiatric institution in London.
Central pavilion of Bedlam Hospital
The hospital moved into more modern premises in a less central location in the 1920s. This made it possible to transfer here the museum created in 1917 to honour the deeds of British soldiers during World War I. The museum also deals extensively with all other conflicts the British armed forces were involved with in the 20th century, and you may have forgotten the Malaya conflict or the Suez expedition. If you are a critical person, you will not have forgotten about the controversies surrounding the first Iraq intervention and the way this is described in the museum gives food for thought.
As entrance is free, you can certainly have a look inside. If you are not keener than me on weapons, uniforms and glorious fighting, I suggest you limit yourself to the central hall for the interesting airplanes and carriages. But you can also spend hours reading detailed accounts of military campaigns in the colonies and attend “sound-and-light” shows for a fee if you are passionate.
Courtyard of Morley Art College
Continue in Lambeth Road after leaving the museum and the park
Soon R King Edward Walk
At the end of the road, you reach Morley College, founded in the 1880s by philanthropists who wanted to give adults from the working classes opportunities to study art seriously and away from the seedy atmosphere of some existing locations. It has built an excellent reputation and the charges for attending are now in line with the level of excellence, not with helping the working class. My picture just shows the courtyard of the main building.
Morley College Art Gallery
The neighbouring building is Morley Gallery, where you can see the works of selected students. As usual with contemporary art, not all exhibitions will necessarily appeal to your taste, but it is indeed one of the best places in London to see a variety of interesting works for free as exhibits are changed frequently.
L Westminster Bridge Road
Flashy estate with luxury flats
At number 100 in this road, you will notice a large building with an impressive curved canopy on columns above a sort of entry road. I definitely expected this to be either a somewhat flashy school or an innovative public building. Far from it, it is an estate with luxury flats. It would be interesting to hear what convinced the borough authorities that it was an appropriate architecture for this road.
Lambeth North Underground station
The station opened in 1906 under the name “Kennington Road”. This caused confusion with Kennington station (on the Northern line) and was changed after three months to “Westminster Bridge Road”. When the line started to run trains North beyond Queen’s Park in 1917, the opportunity was taken to change the name to “Lambeth North” as there was no obvious connection with Westminster.
The building is an other typical Leslie Green design, in this case without an office building above as there was little demand for offices in this industrial part of London. The tiles extend only to the pillars and cornice while the arches are much higher than at Elephant & Castle, so that the building was in line with what warehouses might look like.
R Baylise Road
L Murphy Street, turns R
Estate garden on Murphy Road
The street crosses one of many council estates in Southwark. As mentioned before, the area was actually quite middle-class in the late 18th century, but the vicinity of the harbour attracted an increasing number of industrial premises in the mid-19th century and tenements grew to house the workers. When local authorities started to have both the powers and the financial means to do so in the 1920s, they purchased the derelict housing and replaced it by council estates.
L Frazier Street
R Lower Marsh Road
Waterloo Millenium Green
At the end of the road, you see on the crossroads a small park and a large rectangular building. The park is called Waterloo Millenium Green and is just a bit of lawn and a few bushes with a view towards the Waterloo terminus. What makes it unusual is that it was landscaped by an association of local residents and opened in 2000. This was a very innovative concept at the time. By now, local authorities very often combine public oversight with delegating many maintenance and beautification activities to associations of “friends of X Park”.
Old Vic (Royal Victoria Hall)
The big, rather ugly rectangular building is called the Old Vic for Royal Victoria Hall. It was first opened in 1818 by owners who specialised in “sensational and violent melodramas”, catering to the less refined clientele that dared to cross the Thames. It changed owners and focus frequently over the years, housing for example Ninette de Valois’ innovative ballet company in the 1930s and Lord Laurence Olivier’s National Theatre in the 1960s. The building was partly destroyed during World War II and is therefore a reconstruction. It is unusual in being a stand-alone building with streets on both sides, a rare occurrence for theatres in London.
L Waterloo Road
Central entrance of Waterloo Underground station
The Underground station opened for the Waterloo & City underground railway shuttle in 1898. It was then extended as true Underground lines were built: Bakerloo line in 1906, Northern line in 1926 and Jubilee line in 1999. The location of the platforms and the length of the corridors is such that you could argue for three separate stations: the Northern and Bakerloo lines are located at the western end of the train terminal, the Waterloo & City platform in the middle and the Jubilee line at the eastern end.
Western entrance of Waterloo Underground station
There is no separate building for the Underground stations as there was enough room in the arches below the train terminus access road. As a result, what you see from the road is just a porch. By chance, the iron girders bearing the structure are painting red and this fits more or less with the Leslie Green colour scheme. The second picture shows the access closest to the Bakerloo line platforms; it is a particularly plain concrete porch under a particularly bland office building.
Walk past the length of the train terminus and continue along the train viaduct
On reaching the river Thames, you can detour L into Jubilee Gardens if you feel like a short pause
This green space was landscaped when buildings used in a 1951 exhibition were demolished. There is not much to see except grass and a few larger trees transplanted here in 2012. It is actually not advisable to develop the park much because it is extremely heavily used in summer by tourists relaxing and snacking before or after their London Eye experience.
After relaxing with the myriads of tourists, walk across Hungerford Bridge. I recommend the southern bridge with view towards the London Eye.
Cantilever structure of London Eye
As I don’t comment on the London Eye in other walks, I’ll be pleased to mention that it is nothing else than what our grandparents would have called a Ferris wheel, named after Mr Ferris who installed the first one in the USA in 1893. It was the largest Ferris wheel in the world when it opened in 2000. Wheels in China and in Las Vegas are now larger, but the London one is the tallest that is held only on one side (“cantilevered”). It is the busiest attraction in the United Kingdom with more than 10,000 visitors a day on average.
London Eye at night
To some extent, it is not really interesting, but it is a must-see item for tourists and is a useful landmark as Big Ben and St Paul’s Cathedral don’t stand out as much in the landscape. I prefer the view at night and the purple colour on the picture is indeed very English (landmark buildings are nearly never lit in purple in Europe). Beyond the London Eye, the view from the bridge includes the ministries on Whitehall and beyond the towers of the Houses of Parliament.
View upstream from Hungerford Bridge
The bridge you are on is often called Hungerford Bridge, but this applies officially only to the railway bridge. The pedestrian bridges on both sides are the Golden Jubilee Bridges. A simple walkway along the tracks existed before, but it was necessary to reinforce the old pillars anyway and this was a good opportunity. The new footbridges are technically complex structures as the walkway is suspended to cables that are held by oblique pillars that cannot be fully integrated into the railway bridge pillars. They make for interesting pictures, but it is difficult to find a lull in the considerable foot traffic. The southern bridge you are using is a little quieter.
Detail of construction of Hungerford Bridge
Hungerford Bridge from the walkway
Charing Cross office complex
On nearing the end of the bridge, you get the best view of the Charing Cross station complex. Actually, it is a large office building over the train terminus. The complex interplay of different geometric shapes (slanting, vertical or rounded) is recurrent in the work of star architect Sir Terry Farrell. You may have seen similar shapes in the MI6 complex in Vauxhall, but the Charing Cross design is better integrated into the general riverside landscape. It was one of his earlier major projects, inaugurated in 1990. The style is called “post-modernist” because “modernist” means big steel and glass boxes.
At the end of the footbridge down the stairs to
Embankment Underground station
The station opened first for the District line in 1870. At the time, it was called Charing Cross because it enabled interchange with the nearby train terminus. The deep level platforms for the Bakerloo line were added in 1906 and this station was called “Embankment” because the Bakerloo line stops separately for Charing Cross terminus. When platforms opened for the Northern line in 1914, both existing stations switched to “Charing Cross (Embankment)” to emphasize the interchange opportunity. This turned into “Charing Cross” in 1915 and reverted to Charing Cross Embankment in 1974. The present name came about in 1976 exactly for the reasons given in 1906.
The station building is a 1915 structure built on the occasion of the opening of the Northern line platforms. It was seen at the time as a very elegant neo-Renaissance structure with columns, spiraling gable ends and baroque scrolls. There are large slabs of plain concrete as well, announcing the Imperial style popular in the 1920s.
Typical pub life near Charing Cross terminus
L Villiers Street walking up the hill along the train terminus
L The Arches, a long passage under the train terminus
I found the passage interesting. The so-called shopping arcade is not worth spending much time; what I found interesting was the location of the pubs. In a typically British manner, many people stand outside, but the street does not strike as being particularly hospitable. I actually always found it highly uncomfortable to stand for hours nursing a drink outside just because someone in the party needs a cigarette, sweats too much or is allergic to dark wood and “cosy” Victorian bars.
R Craven Street
Charing Cross Underground station
The Bakerloo line platforms opened in 1906 under the name “Trafalgar Square”. A separate nearby station was opened in 1907 by the Northern line under the name “Charing Cross” as it was closer to the train terminus. An interchange was built in 1979 and the opportunity was taken to rename the Bakerloo line station “Charing Cross”.
Celebrities on the Underground platform
There is no station building and all facilities are underground. If you have an opportunity one day, go and have a look at the platforms. Some of them (I think it is on the Bakerloo line, but I am not sure) show evocations of paintings held at the National Gallery or at the National Portrait Gallery. I think it is an excellent idea and some Underground networks in Europe are serious tourist attractions because of the interesting decoration or art in the stations (Helsinki and Stockholm in particular). Paris holds it like London, it is just an occasional idea for appropriate stations.
Referencing paintings from the National Gallery
Ahead across Trafalgar Square
Chinese New Year on Trafalgar Square
The square (which is not square) is an open place since 1844, when the King moved the Royal Mews to a location closer to Buckingham Palace. It is pretty much the only large open space in central London where you can hold a rally or a civic event such as Diwali, Kwanza’a, the Gay Pride, Chinese New Year etc. Political demonstrations have been held on occasion in the past, but I have the feeling that they are less part of political tradition than in southern Europe or in Paris.
The layout of the square was devised by Charles Barry who primarily wished to create a grand forecourt for the National Gallery. This was achieved by building a high terrace with a balustrade and fountains. A plinth at both ends of the terrace was to provide the symmetry considered more pleasant to the eye, but only one of the statues was agreed upon at the time. The other plinth is now used for contemporary works of art that are changed about every year and generally attract the kind of controversy contemporary artists definitely don’t mind causing.
Trafalgar Square at night
National Gallery overlooking Trafalgar Square
The two other plinths near the fountains were not in the original scheme and bear statues of minor celebrities, which a mayor of London found unfortunate enough to suggest exchanging them against better known figures. As the square belongs to the Crown, agreement was unlikely to be reached. The column with the statue of Admiral Nelson was erected in 1843 against Barry’s protests; tourists seldom notice the statue but the lions at the base are very popular to climb on and take pictures of.
Trafalgar Square lion
Trafalgar Square fountain
An other very popular feature of the square are the fountains, with policemen frequently having to chase young tourists who misuse the fountain as a place to have fun in the water. I don’t think it is a matter of dignity or hygiene, and some of these half-naked tourists would look attractive enough to add to the beauty of the scenery, but the authorities are of course terrified by the safety aspect and the lawsuit in case someone drowns.
South Africa House
The buildings around the square are of very mixed origin. Starting near the Underground station, the first is South Africa House with the huge columns and the golden springbok head. It is actually the embassy (High Commission in correct Commonwealth speak). Embassies are normally less conspicuous and protected by high walls, but this building was originally a speculative office building when it was erected in 1933 and was just bought by South Africa later. You may notice that the main front over the columns bears an inscription in afrikaans – when South Africa became independent, it had very bad memories of the colonial war in Transvaal and the afrikaner politicians dominated government throughout the apartheid era.
View towards St Martin in the Fields
The next building up the street is a church. St Martin in the Fields was built in 1722 in pure neo-classical style and the portico with the columns reminds a lot of a Greek temple. The church tower is the one element that reminds more of baroque churches in London. Neo-classicism was quite daring in the early 18th century but the church ended up a model for many buildings in the second half of that century, particularly in the United States.
Inside St Martin in the Fields
Inside, the church was less unusual for the time. Sir Christopher Wren had already built many churches in the 1780s with columns crowned with golden scrolls. The mildly rounded ceiling with plaster decoration was also a frequent baroque design. The church is well known for its acoustics and commercial concerts aimed primarily at tourists take place nearly daily.
Organ in St Martin in the Fields
One of the leading orchestras in London was also named after this church (the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, founded in 1959 by the music director of the congregation). The church has a crypt with a somewhat unusual access, a glass rotunda set apart from the building. The main use of this crypt is as a café, a useful addition to any concert hall.
Entry of the crypt and café for St Martin in the Fields
Identify the pub
By the way, there is a well-known but inconspicuous gay pub in the street along the church. It is typically English to have such establishments look completely inconspicuous because police applied Victorian laws on “errant behaviour” very strictly until the 1970s. Similar laws existed in Europe at the time but few cities had police raid the corresponding locations on a regular basis. Interestingly, minorities (whether ethnic or sexual) often have the choice in England between hiding like here or meeting in a sort of “ghetto environment” where they are the majority in a small location.
The building that dominates Trafalgar Square is the National Gallery, built in 1835. For financial reasons, the architect had to accept a lot of embarrassing compromises such as re-using a colonnade and statues planned for other, unfinished buildings. As a result, many people complained about proportions being wrong, with the central dome and the small side towers being way too small for the length of the building. The point of comparison at the time was Rome or the Louvre in Paris, and this was quite difficult to beat.
On the far side of the square, the National Gallery had an extension built in 1985 thanks to a very large gift by philanthropic businesspeople. The extension is a rather bland concrete box with minimal outside decoration, which is both the typical style of the time and a sensible attempt at not distracting from the iconic main building.
Central hall of the National Gallery
The National Gallery is obviously a huge museum and I don’t think it really makes sense to visit it in combination with an architecture walk. What you could do is walk into the entrance hall to see the central dome. It has a nice set of marble columns and a neo-Roman ceiling; these were built in 1887 as a nod to what was fashionable decoration around 1820. The floor of this hall is a mosaic in line with the Roman theme, but I am not very impressed neither by the technical quality nor by the strange idea to include the many russet oak leaves in the design.
Mosaïcs in the National Gallery
If you do decide to look at paintings, here is a thought I had after coming several times as entry is free. Apart from what the painting shows, I found it interesting to classify painters into those who wanted to achieve beauty, those who attempted to convey a message and those who were interested in technical achievements such as perspective. The three categories are interesting to keep in mind when looking at religious paintings from the Renaissance as you run less risk of being bored by the umpteenth Madonna or Christ.
Walk down Trafalgar Square to the Nelson column in order to see the buildings on the west side of the square.
The road southwest out of the square is somewhat obscured by office buildings on both sides, but you can still see in the middle the three arches of Admiralty Arch, a peculiar mix of a triumphal arch in the Roman tradition with a practical passage under a building. The idea came from King Edward VII who wished to honour his mother Queen Victoria although the arch was completed in 1912 after the King’s own death. The office building above and on both sides housed offices of the armed forces until a lease was sold to a developer who converted it into a hotel and luxury flats.
Setting of Admiralty Arch
As you will probably have seen on television, the arches are used for ceremonial purposes like visits of foreign dignitaries as the road beyond is the most logical access to Buckingham Palace. The middle arch may only be used by Her Majesty. The whole complex is a rather blocky, unfriendly structure typical of the British Empire style popular in the early 20th century. It is interesting and very British that it was thought more appropriate to honour the deceased Queen with an office building rather than with a stand-alone arch like the one at Marble Arch. In London, you never leave profitable real estate unused if you can make profit out of it.
Former Norwegian Embassy
The row of properties along the south side of Trafalgar Square was a popular location for embassies because of the vicinity with the government offices in Whitehall. One of the buildings still houses the High Commission for Uganda while the Embassy for Norway has moved. The building still bears the name “Norway House” and the entrance door has an impressive granite cladding with the coats of arms of the fylke (counties). It is ironic that a flashy golden sign now invites you to a thaï restaurant in Norway House.
Art nouveau decoration in Cockspur Street
One of the next buildings (14 Cockspur Street) is used by the Bank of Scotland. It has a magnificent Art Nouveau entrance with ladies clad in flowing garments and putti bearing a thistle and a trident. Actually, this decoration was set for a completely different company and this explains the trident: it was a sales office for the Peninsular & Oriental Navigation Company. Don’t hesitate to peek through the windows at the grand decoration of the reception hall with a painted ceiling, crystal chandeliers, mahogany paneling and yellow marble columns. Obviously, this was an office catering to first class passengers.
Former booking office for the Peninsular & Oriental Steamships
Glimpse of Canada House
Nearly opposite the bank, the neo-classical building that occupies a whole block is Canada House, the High Commission for Canada. In a way, it faces South Africa House on the other side of Trafalgar Square as a symbolic reminder of the two most important dominions. The building is from 1925 and is indeed the kind of formal, not very special building you can expect for such an official purpose. You obviously cannot go inside except for an art gallery accessible through a side entrance. I was only once inside and was not too impressed.
Slightly to the R Cockspur Street
L Pall Mall
Pall Mall is an interesting name referring to a sports played in Tudor times. The word comes from the French “jeu de maille”; it was more a game comparable to croquet. There is an interesting French wording referring to it: “pêle mêle” means “completely mixed up” and possibly refers to how players from the two teams looked like on the court, not keeping to their respective halves like you would do in tennis.
Because it overlooks Green Park and is in direct vicinity of the Royal palaces, Pall Mall was always a street reserved to very important and official purposes. In the section you cross on this walk, you actually just see the start of it. The buildings on the left side (towards Green Park) are very formal neo-classical structures similar to those around Regent’s Park. They were indeed also built in the late 18th century and the Crown, who owns the freehold, demanded a similarly aloof style.
Private club for CEOs on Pall Mall
The result was that only the most elevated persons in society felt comfortable in this area, as was intended. It is still the case to some extent as most buildings are used by exclusive private clubs. The one on my picture with an entrance portico worthy of a Greek temple is the Institute of Directors, where CEOs can network and lobby. The building is from 1828 and housed originally a club for senior officers of the Army and Navy. Like many old-fashioned, exclusive clubs, it lost members in the 1960s, being considered too stuffy for a more relaxed society, and finally closed in 1978.
Athenaeum club from 1824
The building on the next picture with a golden statue of Athena rather than a flag above the entrance colonnade is the Athenaeum, an exclusive private club catering mainly to intellectual and scientific persons of distinction. It went with the times, opening itself gradually to ladies between 1972 and 2002, and is successful.
The building is interesting for having been designed by a 24-year old architect, Decimus Burton, who had the incredible luck of being the son of the richest real estate speculator in town and therefore receiving prestigious orders at a surprising age. If you look carefully, there is a frieze all around the building under the roof balustrade. It is a reconstruction of the Parthenon frieze from Athens – as the originals are shared between Athens and the British Museum in London, the full frieze is interesting. As you will know, it shows a religious procession.
R Royal Opera Arcade
Royal Opera Arcade
The name comes from a leading theatre. The arcade was a commercial development along the rear of the theatre aimed at increasing revenues from the piece of real estate. Because not so many tourists are aware of it, it caters rather to the kind of people who enjoy art exhibitions at the nearby Royal Academy. It is a peaceful, elegant arcade with lovely plastic plants in baskets and somewhat thorny looking ironwork carrying old-fashioned gas lighting (electrical by now of course, but a good imitation). It is the earliest arcade still in existence in London.
Theatre Royal Haymarket
You can have a look R when you cross the first street. You get a view of the “Theatre Royal Haymarket”. The present building is from 1821 and was designed by the star architect of the period, John Nash, who also designed the Institute of Directors and the Regent’s Park developments. It was the first theatre to have the completely novel idea of a matinee performance (in 1873) and remains one of the leading serious houses in London. It is “royal” because a King attended theatre here in the late 18th century. He supposedly had an interest in a specific young actress.
Patrons arriving at the theatre
Her Majesty’s Theatre
You cannot really see it from where you stand, but there is an other theatre just opposite the Theatre Royal. It is called Her Majesty’s Theatre because it was originally patented by Queen Anne in 1704. This theatre specialises in operas and musicals, having appropriate machinery for special effects. The building is from 1898 and is not really worth a detour although you get a picture. It is supposed to be quite flashy inside with lots of gilt stucco, as was popular in late Victorian times. There is an absolutely atrocious office tower directly in the background; this was developed in 1959 by none other than the High Commission for New Zealand. At the time, it was considered the epitome of modernity compared to stuffy neo-classical old-boy stone piles, but it is definitely ugly. I could imagine that it is reaching an age when it may profit from being revamped or even replaced by something nicer, but I have never heard anything to this end.
Ahead St Alban’s Street (first a footpath, then a street)
At the end R Jermyn Street
This road is often mentioned in novels as the place where gentlemen buy bespoke suits. There is a very similar road in the vicinity, Savile Row.
L for Piccadilly Circus
Piccadilly Circus at night
This was a traffic circus originally but the traffic has been redirected. It is an extremely busy crossroads both for cars and for pedestrians, and it can be cumbersome just trying to cross through the crowds. Not many people come specifically to this square but you often cross it to reach other locations. Tourists also need to come here once because of a wall covered in neon advertising meant to ape Times Square in New York. Fortunately, no one lives in the buildings in the vicinity as traffic and light would be serious nuisances.
Piccadilly Circus in daylight
The word Piccadilly comes from lace items popular around 1600 that were supplied by a shop located here. Interestingly, the French word “peccadille” means nowadays a modestly embarrassing indulgence or oversight, such as offering your Aunt flowers in the wrong colour. Between 1850 and 1950, the area was very closed to notorious haunts of prostitutes, who can only qualify as “pecaddilles” if you are a conceited Victorian businessman or an energetic American soldier on holiday from the battlefield.
Fountain on Piccadilly Circus
There is a mix of uncoordinated office and retail buildings around the circus, none of which warrants a particularly close look. There are also two statues. The more central one is a fountain with a winged figure usually called Eros because it is a naked youth although it is actually supposed to be Anteros, the god of happy mutual love (Eros is the god of unreturned infatuation). The fountain commemorates a 19th century philanthropist, loving the citizens and loved by them… The other statue is more hidden on the corner of the circus with Haymarket. It shows jumping horses and I have forgotten what or whom it is supposed to remind you of.
Piccadilly Underground station
Both the Bakerloo line and the Piccadilly line platforms opened in 1906.
There was a station building by Leslie Green originally but the station was so congested that it became necessary to build much larger facilities. This was impossible at surface level and all facilities are now underground. The concourse is actually one of the more impressive one on the network, together with that at Bank station. The original building was then demolished in the 1980s.
Take Regent Street, the road soon curves to the R
Regent Street was developed by architect John Nash in the 1810s in order to provide an elegant link between Regent’s Park and Westminster Palace. In terms of urban planning, it also provided a clear separation between the somewhat rowdy entertainment area to the east and the more sedate residential area to the west. This still holds true to a large extent today, there is much more retail activity east and more office buildings west. Regent Street belongs to the Crown including all buildings and this is why it curves twice, private properties preventing a straight road.
Shopping palace on Regent Street
Regent Street is possibly the only road in London that can compete with Unter den Linden in Berlin or Champs-Élysées in Paris, but it is not used in the same manner and is too short and too curving to provide similarly grand views. All buildings were planned from the onset for retail purposes but the Crown took great care to keep a reasonably united style, at least in terms of height and vaguely neo-classical appearance. The Crown is also cautious about which shops it takes in, preferring flaghsip stores for cultural or technology goods and avoiding high street fashion chains. This allows the Crown to ensure that there is less congestion and less discounter pressure than in Oxford Street.
R Glasshouse Street
Slightly L Brewer Street
L Lower John Street passing along Golden Square
The square was developed at the end of the 17th century with the approval (or possibly is the work of) Sir Christopher Wren. It was a very distinguished address, including the Portuguese Embassy, the only place in London at the time where a Roman Catholic mass was allowed.
There is a statue of a king in Roman attire in the middle of the square, but it is not sure whom it shows. It was supposedly bought by mistake at an auction for a small sum and gifted by the owner when he realised his error. There is a nice flower bed near the statue and you will notice that it is one of the rather few squares in London that have no lawn or grass.
Ahead Upper John Street
R Beak Street
very soon L Carnaby Street
L Foubert’s Place
R Kingly Street
There is a maze of narrow streets and passages to your right. Together, they build a large shopping centre devoted to high quality fashion. One of the streets, Carnaby Street, has become a popular indirect reference when speaking of affluent fashion victims. If you can save the time, it is actually quite pleasant to walk around, enjoy canopied Kingly Court and wonder whether you actually would want to be seen in some of the clothes on display.
R Great Marlborough Street
Liberty department store
The timbered building to your right is obviously a fanciful rendition of Tudor urban architecture. It was opened in 1924 because the department store it belongs to needed to renovate its main building on Regent Street. The architect used timber from two seagoing vessels and Tudor imitations (derided as “stockbroker Tudor”) were the height of fashion in the upper middle class in the 1920s. Note the interesting bridge connecting the two buildings; it has a nice clock with gilt decoration and a statue of St George, reminiscent of the clocks with automats popular in late medieval cities (particularly in Germany and Bohemia where this was an important industry with high levels of technical achievement).
Clock and automat
The department store, Liberty, was possibly the most fashionable in London at the time. It had an unrivalled choice of goods from India and China and had exclusive agreements with some of the most influential designers. In several European languages, “Liberty prints” are a clear reference to light floral patterns. Like most department stores, it had difficulties adapting to the era of suburban malls and is now owned by a private equity speculator. The decoration inside the department store is less exciting than the timbered front.
L Argyll Street
L Oxford Street
Oxford Circus Underground station
The station opened on the Central line in 1900 and the Bakerloo line platforms opened in 1906. The Victoria line platforms opened in 1979.
Among the different entrances to the station complex, one is a design by Leslie Green. It is a nearly exact copy of the Elephant & Castle one.
R Regent Street
All Souls church
When the road bends L, you have reached All Souls Church, cleverly built with a conspicuous spire in order to provide a focal point along the length of Regent Street. The idea and the plans are from Nash himself, who was not really seen as a specialist for church buildings. This may explain why the rotunda with columns remained unique. 19th century critics did complain that the church was not imposing enough. The church is now known for an interest in good quality music including a historical organ.
You may be able to have a look inside. The general shapes are reminiscent of the neo-classical style already used in the 1700s by Sir Christopher Wren, but the use of golden columns is really a bit over the top. The combination of the colours white and gold at the exception of anything else was a reaction to the late 18th century fashion for ceilings covered in delicate light colours from baby blue to water green and pale pink.
Inside All Souls church
Ahead Langham Place
The road starts with a big concrete complex that provides a strong contrast to the church. This is the headquarters of the BBC, from where it sent its first broadcast in 1932. The building is a typical Art Déco official building, with lots of flat concrete slabs in rounded shapes. The well-known statue above the main door shows figures from a Shakespeare play, the magician Prospero and the air spirit Ariel, but some experts think it shows God presenting Adam. The work is by Eric Gill, a leading sculptor at that time. There are supposedly many more works of art in the building, but you cannot normally visit for security reasons.
Prospero and Ariel
Luxury hotel on Langham Place
Opposite the BBC building, the end of Portland Place is signalled by a huge stone pile. It is not easy at first sight to date it. The combination of a ground floor in neo-Renaissance rustico stone and other floors in brick with neo-Romanesque arches nearly throughout place it in earlier Victorian times. It was indeed built in 1865 at a huge cost, including such overindulgent luxuries like two bathrooms per floor. Some of the rooms even had a private watercloset, justifying the highest of expectations regarding the quality of guests. It is one of the most prestigious houses in London, catering to heads of states, royalty and stars.
The side view towards the BBC rather than down Portland Place is less massive, with a restaurant protruding as a circular bow window over two floors. French writer Proust referred to this type of structure that was extremely popular in luxury hotels until the mid-20 th century as a “fishbowl”. This is generally understood to be a criticism of the aloofness and pride of the patrons but also a kind of fascination for their lifestyle.
Ahead Portland Place
Ceiling in Asia House
You soon cross New Cavendish Street. If you are interested, there is an influential institution at number 63. Asia House is in part an exclusive club organising meetings between powerful business figures and influential politicians from Asia on visit to London. It also has a significant programme of lectures and conferences on cultural issues. I mention Asia House because it has a few rooms designed by the brothers Adam in 1775. The ceiling on my picture will help you understand my comment regarding All Souls’ golden columns. You may not be able to go inside normally, but this is possible on Open Monument day and is worth the few minutes it will take you.
Signs of the zodiac in Asia House
Back on Portland Place, you can ignore the Chinese embassy on the left side of the road. On the right side, you walk past the British Institute of Radiology at number 36. The institute has several rooms decorated in the Adam Brothers style – the main colour in one room is gray, which was seen at the time as very distinguished and not drab at all because people wore very colourful clothes and had paintings on the walls.
British Institute of Radiology
Having decorative columns to optically cut your main room in two sections was popular because you could more easily use the smaller section for a few friends playing music or acting a play with the audience sitting in the other section. It normally had nothing to do with eating arrangements as you did not have appropriate furniture in a living room to eat on. You might at most have a cup of exotic beverage on a dainty side table in such a reception room.
Neo-classical town house
48 Portland Place is an isolated town house in the John Nash style among the many late Georgian bricks fronts. It will have been one of the first properties built along the road in the 1820s. The reliefs remind a little of Wedgwood porcelain and the top frieze has palmetto leaves that were ubiquitous in the years around 1810.
Royal Institute of British Architects
At number 66, you have reached the important Art Déco building used as the headquarters of the Royal Institute of British Architects. Like with all professional associations, you are unlikely to have heard much about it unless you belong to this specific trade. In a way, these associations correspond to what guilds were in the Middle Ages: they defend the interests of their members, have charitable endeavours and control that the members behave in the way seen as appropriate by the association. As in the Middle Ages, outsiders criticise these associations for siding unashamedly with their members in case a dispute arises between a customer and a member (do you honestly believe the real estate agent ombudsman service to be efficient and client-friendly ?).
Entrance of RIBA
They do have interesting insights as think tanks; the association warned for example repeatedly since 2007 that it was a disgrace to build modern flats and houses in Britain with rooms so small that they were difficult to furnish and to enjoy properly. I think they might also discuss the fact that most modern construction in London, including expensive flats, uses shoddy materials, is badly insulated and shows disappointing workmanship.
Art Déco nudity
The reason I mention the RIBA is obviously their building. The overall shape is a boring big cube, but there are many very interesting Art Déco details like a whole series of reliefs. Lots of naked young men in somewhat artificial poses meant to evoke different aspects of the architect trade. The statues remind more of symbolical drawings and did not cause moral outrage from the usual corners when they were unveiled in the 1930s.
Other Art Déco nudity
You are unlikely to be able to enter the lecture hall, where there is a peculiar painting showing architecture in the colonies. But the building houses a library open to the public and this means you should definitely have a look at the rather stunning main hall with very impressive, dark blue marble pillars speckled in gold that have a unique shape. There are unusual etched glass panels as well.
Architecture in the Empire
Lobby of RIBA
Café of RIBA
If the café is open (I don’t know whether it is reserved for members), do look at the very elaborate reliefs on the pillars between the windows and at the wooden partition. This board is made of 25 small carvings that remind of Indian miniatures but that show all sorts of colonial references like an oil well, a kangaroo or a settler in a Canadian forest.
Miniatures reminding of the colonies and dominions
If the whole building is closed, you will still have an opportunity to see a bit of Art Déco if you look at the tall bronze doors. They show important London monuments chosen from the point of view of an architecture historian and it is worth trying to recognise some that you might not have thought of as significant landmarks.
Town house in the Continental style
80 Portland Place is interesting because it is a type of town house that was seldom built in London. The columns and the triangular tympanon of the top floors are not unusual in neo-clacissism. The first floor with a balcony along the whole front of the house is very unusual and reminds a lot of the town houses in the neo-baroque style rich patrons ordered in Brussels and in Dutch cities. This house was obviously a single order from a specific architect and this is the unusual part, most elegant town houses in London having been built on a unified pattern by a commercial developer.
At the end R along Park Crescent to the main road
The curved row of neo-classical town houses was planned as a full circus and designed by John Nash for the Prince Regent who wanted to develop Crown property. The scheme would have helped funding the budget after the depletion caused by wars against revolutionary France. As war started again, the 1806 scheme did not sell well and only half was completed by 1821. Most of the houses are now luxury flats, some are offices; in any case, only the front to the crescent has kept the original look. There is a small garden in the middle of the half circus, but it is private and walls or bushes hide the central lawn efficiently.
L Marylebone Road for
Regent’s Park Underground station
The station opened in 1906 and is one of the quietest in zone 1, serving neither commercial areas nor densely populated neighbourhoods.
Because it is underneath the private garden, no station building fitting with the surroundings was possible. All facilities are underground and the stairwell is particularly inconspicuous.