To conclude my tour of Edinburgh Castle it seems appropriate somehow to finish with the magnificent Military Tattoo.
As its name suggests, the event is based around the Scottish armed forces, but don’t let that put you off because it’s more to do with kilts and bagpipes than warfare. That said, there is also a solemn side to the proceedings, especially towards the end when recognition of those who have lost their lives in combat are remembered.
For the most part though, it’s an extravaganza of music and dancing, and not just from Scotland either. In fact, it involves more international participants than you might have imagined.
The first Tattoo at Edinburgh Castle took place in 1950 and has grown from strength to strength ever since. The spectacle has become extremely popular and consequently in order to get a good seat, or even any seat, it’s best to book well in advance. This also applies to hotels as well at this time of the year, as it coincides with the Edinburgh Festival.
Shipbuilding, coal and bridges are all words that conjure up images of Newcastle, but so does nightlife, football and a sometimes hard to understand dialect.
This is a city that has always liked to work hard and play hard, but the native Geordies also jealously guard their city’s strong identity with a fierce pride that few other English cities can match. Newcastle is as much about the people as it is the city itself.
The city centre has an eclectic mix of medieval, Georgian, Victorian, and modern architecture, with Grey’s Monument standing pride of place at the top of Grey St which sweeps downhill towards Dean St and the Quayside.
The ‘New’ Castle is Norman in origin and built on the site where the Romans built a fort to guard Pons Aelius (Aelian Bridge). It was part of Hadrian’s Wall that passed through present day Newcastle and ended just outside the city boundary at the appropriately named Wallsend.
Lying on the eastern side of the West End, Covent Garden is a popular destination for tourists and includes the former fruit and vegetable Market, the Opera House, and the area around Seven Dials and Neal’s Yard.
There are no official boundaries to Covent Garden but a map I picked up at the market shows it covering an area from Charing Cross Rd in the west to Kingsway in the east, and from The Strand/Aldwych in the south to Shaftesbury Avenue/High Holborn in the north.
Running straight through the middle from St. Martin’s Lane to Drury Lane is Long Acre which separates the Market and Opera House to the south from the Seven Dials and Neal’s Yard area to the north.
Shelton St which runs parallel with Long Acre south of the Seven Dials is the boundary line between Westminster and Camden.
Originally open fields and then at the centre of Anglo Saxon Lundenwic, the area became the garden of Westminster Abbey and co(n)vent by the beginning of the 13th century.
Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries led to the estate being handed to the Earls of Bedford and a change in the layout to include a fashionable square with a small fruit and vegetable market.
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 round 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.
London has 31 Boroughs, 1 City (The City of London), and Westminster, which is both a Borough and a City.
Whereas the City of London became the legal and financial powerhouse of London, Westminster became the religious, royal and political centre.
This is the home of Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, and the Houses of Parliament, but it’s also the place to come for entertainment, shopping and culture in places like Piccadilly Circus, Oxford St and Trafalgar Square. I guarantee that you’ll run out of time – or steam – or both, before you’ve even scratched the surface.Continue reading →