London’s metropolitan boroughs as we know them today weren’t formed until 1965, but historically speaking, Southwark was a borough on the south bank of the Thames back in Roman times.
Londinium was built where the river was narrow enough to be bridged yet still tidal, allowing trading vessels to sail right into the heart of what was to become the most important city in Roman Britannia.
On the opposite bank the terrain was marshy, but interspersed with islands which made it convenient for building the first London Bridge.
After the Romans left the settlement that grew up around the southern end of the bridge eventually came under the ownership of the church which is why Southwark has its own Cathedral.
It may have been church territory but it didn’t stop the area becoming a medieval red light district – a sort of Tudor and Stuart Soho – with pubs, brothels and bear-baiting pits luring clientele from across the river.
The theatre was also a popular form of entertainment with the likes of Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare writing material for The Rose and of course, The Globe, which has been re-incarnated in recent times on Bankside not far from the original theatre.
Soho’s chequered history has been at the cutting edge of film, theatre, music and other forms of entertainment including the sex industry for as long as I can remember, but gentrification in recent times has seen it become less edgy and more mainstream.
Instead of sleazy clip joints and prostitutes you’re more likely to see fashionable restaurants and blue plaques marking a place of interest, but at least visitors can now check out the area’s fascinating history without the hassle of being coerced into a strip club or worse.
Historically, Soho runs roughly from the north side of Leicester Square up to Oxford St, and from Charing Cross Rd in the east to Regent St in the west. These days though Chinatown (which is the area south of Shaftesbury Avenue), is treated as a separate locality, although it’s still an essential part of Soho.
I said that the area has been gentrified in recent times, but that doesn’t mean to say that it’s become completely sanitized. It’s still a red light district and the gay community has a strong presence around Old Compton St where the Admiral Duncan pub was the scene of a homophobic attack in 1999 which killed three and left thirty injured.
Located slap bang in the middle of Theatreland, Leicester Square is often associated with the stage, but it’s the big screen that’s had the most influence.
Apart from being one of the venues for hosting the London Film Festival, it’s also the place to come if you want to see a film premiere.
There are several cinemas in and around the square, the most obvious being the black polished granite Odeon Cinema which has the largest single screen in the UK and more than sixteen hundred seats.
The cinema influence isn’t quite as strong as it once was though as things are constantly changing, but Leicester Square is still undeniably one of the main entertainment hubs in London. Casinos have a strong presence and if you want cut price theatre tickets the TKTS booth is the best place to come.
Talking of the theatre you can’t fail to notice the water feature surrounding a large statue of William Shakespeare which has been the centrepiece of the square since 1874. Nearby is a much smaller bronze statue of Charlie Chaplin portraying his film character of ’The Tramp’, which seems even more appropriate somehow.
Theatregoers are totally spoilt for choice in London with around 40 theatres in the West End alone, most of them concentrated in what is now called ‘Theatreland’.
Theatreland covers a large part of the West End, and some people might argue that it IS the West End. Wikipedia defines the area it covers as stretching from Kingsway in the east to Regent St in the west and from Oxford St in the north to The Strand in the south.
Some people think of Leicester Square as the epicentre of Theatreland but in actual fact it’s really the centre of ‘Cinemaland’ where many film premieres take place.
When I think of Theatreland I tend to think of the area around Shaftesbury Avenue which isn’t far from Leicester Square anyway.
The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane is regarded as the oldest in the West End and although it’s been entertaining audiences since 1663 there have been three other buildings prior to the one that’s currently here which opened in 1812.
The majority of the other theatres were built between the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the Twentieth, many of them being household names such as the London Palladium which is owned and run by Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ‘Really Useful Group’.
“It’s like Piccadilly Circus here” is a phrase often used when somewhere is chaotically busy, just like the road junction was until the layout was changed in the 1980s.
Up until that point the famous Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain was the central point of the Circus (circle or roundabout) where Regent St, Piccadilly, Coventry St and Shaftesbury Avenue all converged. Not only was it traffic mayhem, it was also (and still is) a meeting point.
It’s also where London’s shopping and entertainment districts meet, and in my own mind, I think of Piccadilly Circus as the centre of the West End.
The Circus was built in 1819 to connect Piccadilly with John Nash’s Regent St, but when Shaftesbury Avenue was constructed in 1886 it lost its circular shape, and now that the Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain has been moved from its central position to improve traffic flow, it looks quite a bit different from its original creation.
The fountain, commemorating the Seventh Earl of Shaftesbury, was erected in 1893, and for years I was one of many who believed that the statue on top was that of Eros, the Greek God of Love, but in actual fact it’s his brother Anteros. If the sculptor, Sir Alfred Gilbert, had created the first Greek God, Chaos, on the top it might have been less confusing and more appropriate somehow.
“The West End” or “Up West” are phrases that are commonly heard around London, but there are no official geographical boundaries to determine exactly where it is, and so there will be many different interpretations as to what actually constitutes the area known as the West End – and this is mine.
Historically speaking, anywhere west of the City of London was the West End, but these days the area is somewhat more defined. Wikipedia suggests that it covers an area from Temple, Holborn and Bloomsbury in the east, Regent’s Park to the north, Paddington, Hyde Park and Knightsbridge to the west and Victoria and Westminster to the south.
From a visitor’s point of view though I would argue that the area is even more compact than that. I would include the entertainment areas of Covent Garden, Leicester Square, Chinatown and Soho, the shopping areas around Oxford St, Regent St and Bond St and also the focal points of Piccadilly Circus and Trafalgar Square – in other words the favourite spots for eating, drinking, shopping, and going to the theatre or cinema.
This list of course is subjective, but hopefully will give first time visitors to London an idea on what the West End is all about, and if there are any Londoners out there (or anyone else for that matter) who would like to add to the debate on what the West End means to them then please feel free to add your comments. I look forward to reading them.
I doubt that it was intentional, but the location of the Memorial to Edith Cavell seems appropriate somehow, standing just yards away from St Martin-in-the-Fields. At the same time as Dick Sheppard was keeping the doors open for troops returning from the WWI battlefields, Nurse Edith Cavell was helping Allied troops escape from occupied Belgium.
One of the most celebrated female figures of the war, Edith Cavell was born on 4th Dec 1865 in Swardeston, a small village near Norwich in Norfolk.
At the age of 20 she started her nursing career at The London Hospital (now the Royal London Hospital) and then went on to become assistant matron at the Shoreditch Infirmary.
In 1907 she moved to Belgium where she became matron of the Berkendael Institute in Brussels.
A visit to the church of St Martin-in-the-Fields will be especially rewarding for people with a social conscience.
Centrally located next to Trafalgar Square, records show that there was a church ‘in the fields’ between Westminster and the City of London from Norman times, but the present structure was built by James Gibbs and completed in 1726.
Although the design wasn’t universally popular at the time, it wasn’t long before copies were being made around the English speaking world, particularly in the United States.
The interior is also interesting, from both a modern and historic perspective. The restored Baroque ceiling is extremely impressive as is the fabulous organ that was built as recently as 1990, but probably the most eye catching feature is the East Window. Installed in 2008, the abstract cross was designed by Shirazeh Houshiary and her husband Pip Horne. From a modern point of view I think this window is quite outstanding in its simplicity.
I read somewhere that London has somewhere in the region of 1,500 permanent art galleries, and I wouldn’t have a clue as to whether that’s a true number or not, but however many it is, it’s definitely a large number.
Some are big and some are small, some are good, and some no doubt are not so good, but art is very often a matter of personal choice. The problem for visitors who don’t know their Constable from their Hockney is where to go to see the best examples of what London has to offer.
One of the most well known, and deservedly so in my opinion, is the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square, and next door just around the corner in St. Martin’s Place is the National Portrait Gallery (NPG).
Whereas the National Gallery’s name is a bit confusing because it includes works of art from all over Europe, the National Portrait Gallery’s collection is of “the most eminent persons in British History”.
That statement seems to sum up the NPG for me. The paintings are more about the subjects rather than the artists. There are some great subjects, but that doesn’t necessarily make them great works of art. Now, I have to admit that I can’t even paint an outside wall, and the only thing I’ve ever been able to draw is a pint, so what do I know really?
Looking at works of art is very subjective, and so it’s probably a good idea to have an understanding on what type of art is on display at the National Gallery and where you can find what you’re looking for.
Overlooking Trafalgar Square, the National Gallery has over 2,300 paintings that belong to UK citizens and consequently is free to go in. You can either walk up the steps and enter through the portico, or better still take the Getty entrance on the right, where, not only is there a lift for people who need it, but also other facilities such as cloakroom, toilets, coffee bar, café, restaurant, shop, and information point.
The lift will whisk you up to Level 2 where practically all the paintings are located. The layout is arranged in a total of four wings – the Sainsbury Wing (13th-15th century), the West Wing (16th century), the North Wing (17th century) and the East Wing (18th to early 20th century). The Sainsbury Wing is a modern extension added in 1991. In some ways this makes it slightly more confusing because although it houses the earliest paintings, the rooms are numbered the highest (from 51 to 66). Other than that all the other wings run in chronological order.
Given that the name is The National Gallery, you might think that it just houses British works of art, but in actual fact it exhibits the country’s collection of Western European paintings including Renaissance, Baroque and Impressionism. (For the National Gallery of British Art you need to go to Tate Britain on Millbank).