10 sites of (historic) musical significance in London – 3. Denmark Street…

A sign promoting Denmark Street in 2009. PICTURE: Ged Carroll (licensed under CC BY 2.0)

Nicknamed ‘Tin Pan Alley’ after a famous New York City area associated with music publishers and songwriters, Denmark Street in Soho is famous for its 20th century music connections.

The British Plaque Trust plaque in Denmark Street. PICTURE: Andrew Davidson (licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0)

The street, which is just 100 yards long, was home to most major music publishing and management companies during the 1950s and 1960s as well as recording studios while publications Melody Maker and New Musical Express (better known to some as the NME) were also founded there.

Artists with a connection include David Bowie, Paul Simon, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, and The Sex Pistols (who reportedly left a considerable amount of graffiti at number six), while two members of Bananarama apparently lived there in the 1970s. Lionel Bart, writer of the musical Oliver!, also started out here and was later known as the “King of Denmark Street”.

The street was also home to the famous Gioconda Cafe – whose patrons have included Bowie, Jimi Hendrix and Elton John.

These days home to many musical instrument shops, the future of the Denmark Street has been a matter of some controversy in recent years with a planned redevelopment attracting considerable protest.

Looking west down Denmark Street in May, 2021. PICTURE: Google Maps.

A plaque – put in place by the British Plaque Trust (pictured above; it’s not to be confused with the English Heritage Blue Plaque commemorating dive helmet pioneer Augustus Siebe on number five) – was unveiled at number nine in 2014 commemorating the street’s musical connections between 1911 and 1992. It reads “Home of the British Publishers and Songwriters and their meeting place The Giaconda.”

Sixties pop singer Donovan, who recorded here, performed a song he’d written specifically for the occasion – appropriately named Tin Pan Alley.

10 sites of (historic) musical significance in London – 2. 23 Heddon Street…

This property (and the street, which runs in a horseshoe off Regent Street in the West End, I which it sits) is famous for its appearance on the cover of David Bowie’s 1972 album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stadust and the Spiders from Mars.

The famous album cover.

The cover – which features Bowie (who was ill with the flu at the time) dressed as Ziggy Stardust standing outside the building under the light of a lamp – was one of several shots taken by photographer Brian Ward on a cold and wet night in January, 1972.

Originally taken in black and white, the selected image was subsequently hand-coloured by artist Terry Pastor for the album cover.

There’s been much commentary over the years about the sign which appears over Bowie’s head in the shot and reads K West. Bowie himself, lamenting the fact the sign had been removed when the furrier moved out in the early 1990s, commented later that that it had taken on “mystical overtones” for some fans who thought it was code for the word quest. But the truth is more mundane – it was apparently the name of a furrier who at the time occupied part of the building.

PICTURE: Jnicho02 (licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0)

The back cover of the album featured Ziggy inside an iconic red phone box which was located just around the corner from number 23, still in Heddon Street. One of the K2 boxes, it’s since been replaced.

While the street has been considerably gentrified since Ziggy stood there (rather than a deserted back street, it’s now a popular al fresco dining area), a plaque was unveiled commemorating the role of the building in 2012 (pictured above).

The album, meanwhile, was released on 16th June, 1972, by RCA Records to what was generally a favourable reception.

London Explained – The West End…

Piccadilly Circus lies at the heart of London’s West End. PICTURE: Sheep purple (licensed under CC BY 2.0)

This term is used to describe what was traditionally the western end of London as it developed beyond the City of London boundaries and has since became a word synonymous with the city’s theatre district.

The term’s origins are lost to history although it’s said it first started being used in earnest to describe fashionable areas to the west of Charing Cross in the late 17th or early 18th centuries. The term as it’s used today covers an area which contains the commercial and entertainment heart of London.

While the eastern boundary of the West End can be easily defined as where the City of London ends (Temple Bar on the Strand marks the City of London’s boundaries), thanks to its not being a formally designated geographic area, exactly where the West End finishes is a matter of considerable debate.

While the some see the West End only including Theatreland itself – an area stretching from Aldwych across to Piccadilly Circus and north from Trafalgar Square to Oxford Circus, others have adapted a broader definition which sees include not only Aldwych, Soho and Covent Garden but also Mayfair, Fitzrovia and Marylebone with Oxford Circus at the centre (some even go further and include districts such as Bloomsbury and Knightsbridge in their definition of the West End).

Where’s London’s oldest…flyover?

PICTURE: Teseum (licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)

The oldest flyover in central London was actually built well before the first automobile.

Spanning the Fleet River valley, it was built between 1863 and 1869 and, spanning Farringdon Street below (which follows the line of the Fleet (now beneath the ground), it linked the City of London with Holborn (or more specifically Holborn with Newgate Street).

Statue of commerce on the flyover. PICTURE: steve_w (licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The flyover was designed by City of London surveyor William Heywood. It was part of a number of improvements designed to create better access to the City from the West End.

A number of old buildings and indeed some entire streets had to be demolished before construction could begin and thousands of bodies buried in St Andrew Holborn’s northern churchyard had to be relocated.

Made of cast iron, the flyover is about 1400 feet (425 metres) long and 80 foot (24 metres) wide and features three spans – the largest in the middle – supported on granite pillars.

Pavilions containing stairs allowing pedestrians to move between levels were built at either end on both sides of the roadway (the two northern buildings are both replacements – the previous versions were demolished after being damaged during the Blitz and have been replaced in more recent years).

The decorations include a series of four bronze statues featuring Agriculture and Commerce on the south side (the work of Henry Bursill) and Fine Arts and Science on the north side (the work of firm Farmer & Brindley).

There are also statues of winged lions and globe lamps (the current lamps are replicas with the originals thought to have been destroyed during the Blitz) as well as well as the City of London’s coat-of-arms and dragons.

The buildings containing the stairs, meanwhile, each feature a statue of a famous medieval Londoner on the facade – merchant Sir Thomas Gresham (1519-1579), engineer Sir Hugh Myddelton (1560-1631), and Mayors Sir William Walworth (d.1385) and Henry Fitz Ailwin (1135-1212).

The viaduct was opened by Queen Victoria on 6th November, 1869. It was listed as Grade II in 1972.

Lost London – The Carlton Hotel…

The Carlton Hotel (via Wikimedia Commons)

A luxury hotel built at the turn of the 20th century in the West End, the massive Carlton Hotel was part of an even larger redevelopment that included the (still standing) fourth version of Her Majesty’s Theatre (which provides a good idea of what the overall building looked like).

Located on the Crown estate on the corner of Pall Mall and Haymarket, the hotel was designed by CJ Phipps (who died before it was completed). Building started in 1896 and was completed by 1899.

Swiss hotelier César Ritz – who had been dismissed from his position as the manager of the Savoy Hotel in 1897 and subsequently successful opened his own establishment, the Hôtel Ritz, in Paris the following year – agreed to take a 72-year lease of the new hotel and a new company, The Carlton Hotel, Limited, was formed.

The building, which had interiors designed in the French Renaissance style, contained more than 300 guest rooms, all with telephones, including 72 suites which came with en suite bathrooms. There were also private dining and reception rooms for guests as well as reading and smoking rooms and a highly regarded Palm Court. And, of course, a restaurant in which Auguste Escoffier, who had left the Savoy under a cloud with Ritz, was employed as a head chef.

The Palm Court at The Carlton Hotel as featured in the Illustrated London News on 5th August, 1899.

The hotel, the upper floors of which contained private residences, was a hit and quickly threatened the status of the Savoy as the city’s most fashionable hotel. But in 1902, as the hotel was preparing to mark the coronation of King Edward VII, the king fell ill and the festivities were postponed indefinitely. Ritz suffered a nervous breakdown – apparently from the shock – and Escoffier was left in charge.

While its reputation was never again as high as it had been in the years immediately after opening, the Carlton Hotel remained profitable until World War II when it was heavily damaged during German bombing in 1940. Residential parts of the building were closed and in 1942 the remainder of the building was requisitioned by the British Government (with the exception of the American Bar and Grill Room which remained open).

The hotel never fully reopened, however, and, in 1949, the lease was sold to the New Zealand Government. The Carlton Hotel was demolished in 1957-58 and the New Zealand High Commission subsequently built on the site.

Among the hotel’s most famous clientele was Winston Churchill who was apparently dining in the restaurant with Lloyd George when World War I was declared.

Another famous association is commemorated by an English Heritage Blue Plaque which records the fact that Ho Chi Minh, founder of modern Vietnam, worked there as a cook in 1913 (when he was then known as Nguyen That Tanh).

There’s a story that Tanh, seeing how much food was being thrown away, asked Escoffier if he could give it to the poor, to which Escoffier told him to put aside his revolutionary ideas so he could teach him “the art of cooking, which will make you a great deal of money”. Tanh clearly choose another path.

10 London buildings that were relocated…9. St Andrew’s Church…

Formerly a noted church in London’s West End, St Andrew’s Church now has a new life in Kingsbury.

A drawing of St Andrew’s in Wells Street.

The church’s origins go back to its construction in Wells Street, Marylebone, in the mid-19th century. Designed by Samuel Daukes, the church, the construction of which began in 1845, was completed in February, 1847.

St Andrew’s soon become one of the city’s most fashionable churches (Prime Minister, William Gladstone, was an occasional worshipper).

Rev Benjamin Webb was vicar between 1862-85 – a time when the church was known for its High Anglican services, and it was during his tenure that the church’s rather splendid interior fittings were added.

These included a reredos (featuring five sculptures by James Redfern) designed by GE Street, a high altar by Augustus Pugin, a brass reading desk by William Butterfield and a litany desk by William Burges (now in the V&A).

By the start of the 20th century, the area around the church was being transformed as residences gave way to commercial property and warehouses. The congregation dwindled and eventually the church was declared redundant, its doors closing on Easter Sunday, 1931.

The church in Kingsbury
PICTURE: Google Maps

The church was set to be demolished but there was an outcry and eventually a proposal to relocate it to Kingsbury, in London’s north-west, where there was a congregation urgently needing a new building.

The church was carefully dismantled – each stone labelled and numbered – and then transported 10 miles to Kingsbury where it reconstructed in Old Church Lane.

The rebuild – described at the time as putting together “the biggest jigsaw in the world” (yes, it’s a somewhat overused phrase when it comes to building relocations) – took three years and involved making as few changes to the former structure as possible.

The building was finally reconsecrated on 13th October, 1934, by Arthur Foley Winnington Ingram, the Bishop of London. St Andrew’s Kingsbury remains in use as a church today.

What’s in a name?…Great Windmill Street…

This West End thoroughfare obviously, now associated with London’s nightlife, owes its name to a windmill which once stood in the vicinity.

The windmill stood for at least 100 years before it was demolished in the late 17th or early 18th century – the rural land on which it stood was known as Windmill fields.

As the area now known as Soho was developed, the street, which runs between Brewer Street and Coventry Street (albeit split into two sections by Shaftesbury Avenue), was gradually constructed and by the early 1680s both sides of it had been developed.

Famous residents include the Scottish anatomist and physician William Hunter, who, built a large house at number 16 in 1767 which featured an anatomical theatre, dissecting rooms, library and museum. It now forms part of the Lyric Theatre and is recognised with an English Heritage Blue Plaque.

An upstairs room in the former Red Lion pub, located on the corner with Archer Street, is famous for being where Karl Marx and Frederick Engels were asked to write a program of action for the Communist League, published in 1848 as The Communist Manifesto.

Meanwhile, the former Windmill Theatre, which first opened in the 1930s and famously “never closed” during the Blitz, was known for its “Windmill Girls” in which nude girls posed motionless in what were known as “tableaux vivants”, has long been associated with risqué entertainment. The establishment was owned by Laura Henderson, the subject of the 2005 film starring Dame Judi Dench, Mrs Henderson Presents.

The street is also home to the Trocadero complex, originally built in 1896 as a restaurant by J Lyons and Co – of Lyon’s Corner Houses fame – to cater for theatre crowds on the site of what had been the Argyll Assembly Rooms, an establishment which become notorious as a meeting place for prostitutes and their customers. The Trocadero was redeveloped in the 1980s into a shopping and entertainment complex. There are now plans to build a hotel on the site.

Other landmarks include the Soho Parish School – the only school in Soho – which, located at number 23, traces its origins back to 1699 as well as St James Tavern, said to be built in the late 1890s on the site of an earlier tavern, The Catherine Wheel.

View down Great Windmill Street with The Lyric pub on the right and the former Windmill Theatre on the left (Pedro Szekely/licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)

What’s in a name?…Great Queen Street…

Wondering which ‘great’ Queen this street name is referring to? Perhaps Queen Victoria, our own Queen Elizabeth or even her namesake, Queen Elizabeth I?

None of the above – the West End thoroughfare which runs between Drury Lane and Kingsway, is named for Queen Anne (of Denmark), consort of King James I (and the ‘great’ in Great Queen Street, we imagine, refers to the size of the thoroughfare and not the ‘greatness’ of the Queen).

Originally a residential street dating from the first half of the 17th century (one of which apparently sported a statue of another queen, Henrietta Maria, wife of King Charles I, on its facade), the houses were gradually replaced  over the years but some early 18th century abodes do remain.

Famous residents include everyone from Civil War Parliamentarian General Thomas Fairfax and 18th century composer Thomas Arne to late 17th and early 18th century portrait painter Sir Godfrey Kneller and James Boswell, biographer of Samuel Johnson.

Freemason’s Hall, home of the United Grand Lodge of England, is located on the corner with Wild Street and the De Vere Grand Connaught Rooms next door stand on the site of the former Freemasons Tavern where, in 1863, the Football Association was founded.

PICTURE: View down Great Queen Street with the edifice of Freemason’s Hall on the right. (Google Street View)

10 sites from Victoria and Albert’s London – 5. West End theatres…

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert both had an abiding love of performance and were avid theatre-goers (the Queen first attended the theatre as monarch to watch The Siege of Rochelle and Simpson & Co at the Drury Lane Theatre just a few months after ascending the throne in 1837).

Until Prince Albert’s death in 1861, they were regularly seen at various theatres with the Queen attending both ‘in state’ (that is, formally as monarch with all the pomp and ceremony that entails) as well as in private (despite Prince Albert’s concerns over her security). The royal couple’s visits to the theatre generally took place from February to June when the Queen was principally in residence at Buckingham Palace.

As well as the Drury Lane Theatre (more formally, the Theatre Royal Drury Lane – pictured above in 2018), other theatres they attended include the Theatre Royal Haymarket and the Covent Garden Theatre, now the Royal Opera House.

They also attended the now demolished Princess’s Theatre in Oxford Street, most notably to see Charles Kean’s production of The Corsican Brothers in February, 1852. Keen not only directed but played both brothers mentioned in the title. So enamoured was the Queen of it, that she would see it four times.

The royal couple were such great admirers of Kean that they even had him stage private theatrical performances at Windsor Castle and when he died, Queen Victoria sent a letter of condolence to his wife.

PICTURE: Marco Verch (licensed under CC BY 2.0)

 

LondonLife – Chinese New Year celebrations…

Chinese or Lunar New Year celebrations in London – the largest outside Asia – were held at various West End sites including Chinatown, on Sunday to welcome in the Year of the Pig.

PICTURES: Garry Knight (licensed under CC BY 2.0)

10 historic London hotels…4. The Langham Hotel…

This sprawling London hotel in Portland Place – just past the top end of Regent Street – has spent much of its life as a hotel but was also once part of the BBC.

Built in 1863-65 to the plans of John Giles and James Murray, the £300,000 Langham Hotel – claimed as Europe’s first “grand hotel” – was deliberately designed to be on a scale and with a level of magnificence the city had not yet seen.

Spread over 10 floors – including those below ground – and designed in the style of an Italian palace, it boasted 600 rooms including numerous suites and featured mod-cons including the city’s first hydraulic lifts (electric lighting and air-conditioning would follow).

Features included its celebrated Palm Court, said to be the birthplace of the traditional afternoon tea.

It opened in a rather spectacular celebration on 10th June, 1865, with more than 2,000 guests including the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII).

It soon gained a reputation among the rich and influential. Along with exiled members of European royal families including the Emperor Napoleon III of France and exiled Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, those who stayed here included the likes of American writer Mark Twain, Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini, Czech composer Antonin Dvorak, explorer Henry Morton Stanley and romantic novelist Ouida.

Charles Dickens believed there was no better place for dinner parties and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, another guest, used it as a setting in his Sherlock Holmes novels.

Its proximity to All Soul’s in Langham Place – the scene of many a fashionable wedding – saw it host many wedding receptions and the servants at Langham were led in prayers each morning by a clergyman from the church.

It was also popular with international musicians and artists thanks to the location of Queen’s Hall nearby.

The Langham declined in popularity during the two World Wars as the social centre of London moved west. Having served as a first aid and military post during World War II, it was badly damaged during the Blitz with much destruction caused when its massive water tank ruptured.

After the war, the BBC bought the hotel and used it for offices, studios and the BBC Club.

The BBC sold the building in the mid-Eighties and in 1991 after a £100 million renovation, it reopened as the Langham Hilton Hotel with Diana, Princess of Wales, a regular visitor.

It was sold again in 1995 and extended and refurbished. It again underwent a five year, £80 million, refurbishment in the mid 2000s, reopening in 2009.

The five star Langham – now the flagship of a group of hotels, celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2015 with the opening of the Regent Wing as well as The Sterling Suite, a luxurious six bedroom suite, and a new Langham Club Lounge.

Now a Grade II-listed building, it contains some 380 suites and rooms as well as The Grand Ballroom, the aforementioned Palm Court, restaurants including Roux at The Landau and Artesian, a British tavern, The Wigmore, and a spa.

It has appeared in numerous films, including the 1995 James Bond film, GoldenEye, in which it doubled for a hotel in St Petersburg. It also features a City of Westminster Green Plaque commemorating a meeting there between Oscar Wilde, Conan Doyle and Joseph Marshall Stoddart who commissioned the two writers to write stories for his magazine.

For more, see www.langhamhotels.com/en/the-langham/london.

PICTURE: Top – Sheep”R”Us (licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0); Right – David Adams

Correction – this is actually number four in our special series, not three!

A Moment in London’s History – The Beatles play a final rooftop concert…

This month marks 50 years since The Beatles’ final public performance – a seemingly impromptu concert which took place on a Savile Row rooftop on a freezing day in 1969 (but was actually held to record the final scenes of a film they were making).

The unannounced concert on 30th January was only 42 minutes long and featured five songs – including Get Back, I’ve Got A Feeling, One After 909, Dig A Pony and Don’t Let Me Down, some of which were played more than once (as well as various other song snippets).

As well as band members John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, Billy Preston had been brought in as a keyboardist.

The event, described in RollingStone as the band’s first “truly live” performance in more than two years, took place on the roof of the headquarters Apple Corps, then located at 3 Savile Road, which was the corporation the group had founded as an umbrella organisation for its various business ventures including Apple Records.

The performance, which famously ended with John Lennon saying “I’d like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves, and I hope we passed the audition”, was filmed and recorded and 21 minutes of the footage featured in the 1970 documentary, Let It Be.

The Fab Four’s concert was eventually shut down by the Metropolitan Police – located just up the street at number 27 – over noise and traffic issues but no arrests were made (Ringo later wrote about his regret at not being dragged off by them).

 

London Pub Signs – The Blue Posts…

This Soho pub, located not far from Piccadilly Circus, takes its name from the blue posts which once stood out front.

A pub is believed to have stood on this site at 28 Rupert Street – now in Chinatown – since at least 1739 and is believed to have been updated substantially in about 1850. While the blue posts themselves are long gone, the building itself is now painted blue.

It has been suggested that the blue posts were simply placed out the front to mark the pub’s location before street numbering systems were introduced – as in, “it’s the place with the blue posts out the front”, but there are a number of other suggestions for the origins of the name.

One is that the blue posts were used as border markers for the royal hunting ground which once stood or Soho. Another, perhaps more likely than the aforementioned, that they marked locations where you could hire sedan chairs from in times gone by.

Whatever the reason for its name, this small, Grade II-listed pub, which is located on the corner with Rupert Close, underwent a complete transformation in early 2018 by the team behind the Israeli eatery, The Palomar.

As well as a small pub in ground floor of the building, it also boasts a cocktail lounge on the upper floor called the Mulwray (apparently named for the character, Evelyn Mulwray, played by Faye Dunaway in the movie Chinatown) and a small restaurant in the cellar called Evelyn’s Table (another Chinatown reference).

The Rupert Street establishment is one of several pubs with the same name in West End – others include one located nearby in Berwick Street, another in Newman Street, and yet another in Bennet Street in St James’s. And that’s just those in near proximity. So whatever the blue posts represented, it was clearly a relatively common feature in the area.

For more, see http://theblueposts.co.uk.

PICTURE: Ewan Munro (licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)

10 historic London hotels…2. The Savoy…


The first purpose-built luxury hotel built in Britain (and often referred to as London’s “most famous” hotel), The Savoy opened its doors on 6th August, 1889.

Located on the river side of the Strand on the site of what had been the medieval Savoy Palace (its most famous resident was John of Gaunt), the hotel was built by theatre impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte using profits made from his staging of Gilbert and Sullivan operas, some of which were performed in the neighbouring Savoy Theatre.

The now Grade II-listed building, which apparently had no overall architect in its initial design process, exuded opulence and its interiors included the latest in modern amenities such as electric lighting and lifts, en suite bathrooms in most of the guest rooms and constant cold and hot running water.

César Ritz, who would later rise to fame as the owner of The Ritz Hotel in Paris and then London (see our recent post), was hired as the manager and Auguste Escoffier as the chef. Together they oversaw the introduction of a new, unprecedented level of hotel service which would set the standard for future enterprises. This included keeping a comprehensive index of guest’s tastes and preferences and saw Escoffier revolutionise the restaurant industry in the country with the creation of various “stations” in the kitchen (his pots and pans are apparently still at the hotel).

The hotel was expanded in 1903-04 under the eye of architect Thomas Edward Collcutt (the designer of Wigmore Hall) with new east and west wings and the main entrance was moved from the river side of the building to Savoy Court running off The Strand. The Front Hall is a survivor of this period while the Lancaster Ballroom dates from 1910.

The hotel underwent further remodelling in the 1920s – it was during this period that the famous stainless steel sign over the Savoy Court entrance, designed by art deco architect Howard Robertson (later Sir Howard), was created (Savoy Court incidentally is the only street in the UK where traffic must keep to the right – more on that another time). The sign is topped with a gilt statue of Peter of Savoy, the uncle to King Henry III’s wife, Eleanor of Provence (pictured below). It was Peter who first built the Savoy Palace on the land where the hotel now stands. The sign, meanwhile, was created for the 1904 extension but placed here during the 1920s works.

Further modifications – including the introduction of air conditioning – followed in later decades. The hotel now boasts some 267 rooms and suites (the latter include the Royal Suite which spans the entire riverside of the fifth floor), many of which feature panoramic views of the River Thames.

Famous guests over the years have included royalty such as King Edward VII (when Prince of Wales) as well as more recent royals, French actress Sarah Bernhardt, Oscar Wilde, Charlie Chaplin, Sir Henry Irving and Sir Laurence Olivier. It’s also hosted a who’s who of Hollywood – everyone from Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland to Frank Sinatra, Humphrey Bogart and John Wayne – and US President Harry S Truman.

Others associated with the hotel include opera singer Dame Nellie Melba – the dessert known as a Peach Melba was created here in her honour, and artist Claude Monet, who painted Waterloo Bridge from a position on one of the balconies.

Among other significant events to take place within its walls was a 1905 “Gondola Party” hosted by American millionaire George A Kessler which saw the central courtyard flooded as part of a recreation of Venice with guests dining on an enormous gondola and entertainment featuring singer Enrico Caruso.

In 1953, to mark the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, the hotel hosted a ball attended by 1,400 of the rich and famous with special touches including 16 Yeoman Warders from the Tower of London who lined the entrance staircase.

Films shot here include Kipps (1921), based on a HG Wells novel (Wells was in attendance during the filming), The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981) and Notting Hill (1999).

The Savoy remained in the Carte family until it was bought by an American private equity house in 1998 and eventually sold, in the mid-2000s, to become part of Fairmont Hotels and Resorts of Canada.

Closed in late 2007 for a complete renovation (the cost of which has been put at £220 million), it reopened in October, 2010. Among restaurants and bars now in the premises are the Thames Foyer restaurant – hosted in a glass atrium, it’s where afternoon tea is taken, the American Bar – described as the oldest cocktail bar in Britain, the Beaufort Bar, and the restaurant Kaspar’s.

The latter is named after the hotel’s oldest “employee” – Kaspar the Cat. Carved in 1927 by Basil Ionides, the cat was created to act as a 14th guest in the private dining rooms when 13 guests were present, a figure which was considered unlucky and which, tradition held, meant the first person to leave the table would one the first to die.

Its origins go back to 1898 when a wealthy South African by the name of Woolf Joel apparently scoffed at the idea of 13 being an unlucky number at the table and volunteered to leave it first. He was shot dead back in South Africa just a few week’s later. In the wake of his death, management at the hotel decreed that any table of 13 would be joined by a staff member.

But this was only a short-term solution – not only there was there the privacy of diners to consider, the fact staff would be a person down when this was required was a problem. So when Ionides redecorated the private dining room ‘Pinafore’ in the 1920s, he created the cat, complete with napkin, to fulfil the role of the 14th diner. And so he has ever since. Kaspar, the subject of a children’s book written by Michael Morpugo in 2008, can these days be found in Kaspar’s or, when not working, in the Front Hall.

For more, see www.thesavoylondon.com

10 historic London hotels…1. The Ritz Hotel…

This Piccadilly institution was constructed from 1904 to 1906 and takes its name from Swiss hotelier César Ritz.

It was constructed on the site of a former coaching inn for the Blackpool Building and Vendor Company – it was the first steel-framed building in London – and designed by Mewés and Davis, the architects of the Paris Ritz. And even though Ritz himself was apparently actually retired at the time, it was built according to his specifications.

The exterior facade features Norwegian granite and Portland stone and boasts an arcade on Piccadilly which deliberately evokes the Rue de Rivoli in Paris. The interior, the work of Waring and Gillow, is designed in the style of Louis XVI and was designed to be opulent with all rooms featuring a working fireplace.

Public spaces include the Palm Court – famous for its traditional afternoon teas –  and a Michelin-starred restaurant with floor to ceiling windows overlooking Green Park. Other features include the Rivoli Bar, designed in 2001 by Tessa Kennedy to resemble the bar in the Orient Express, and the basement Ritz Club, a private casino.

The now Grade II*-listed hotel was officially opened by Ritz himself on 24th May, 1906, and was soon adopted by the rich and famous – the patronage of the Prince of Wales (future King Edward VIII) after the death of King Edward VII was one key reason for its success.

Actor Charlie Chaplin, who apparently had to have 40 police hold back the crowd to enter the hotel, is also a name famously associated with it as is that of Russian prima ballerina Anna Pavlova who performed here.

The Aga Khan and Paul Getty both had suites, and playwright Noel Coward and Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother, regularly dined here while Tallulah Bankhead famously sipped champagne from a slipper in the bar. The Marie Antoinette Suite was also famously the location of a conference between Winston Churchill, Dwight Eisenhower and Charles de Gaulle during World War II.

The hotel also featured in 1999 film Notting Hill, starring Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts, and in the more recent TV drama Downton Abbey.

The five star hotel underwent a major 10 year refurbishment after it was acquired by the Barclay brothers in 1995. The complex these days includes the adjoining 18th century property William Kent House (designed, of course, by William Kent).

In 2001, the hotel was awarded the first Royal Warrant for Banqueting and Catering Services. Other boasts these days include being the only UK hotel to have a certified tea sommelier (among teas served is the hotel’s own Ritz Royal Blend).

For more, see www.theritzlondon.com.

10 (lesser known) memorials to women in London – 9. Anna Pavlova…

This statue of famed ballerina Anna Pavlova (1881-1931) is actually a replica of an original which was first installed here atop the cupola of the Victorian Palace Theatre, in Victoria Street in the West End, in 1911.

Commissioned by the theatre’s owner, Alfred Butt, it had been installed to mark Pavlova’s London debut. The ballerina, who had started her career in Russia, moved to settle in Ivy House in Golders Green in 1912 and subsequently went on to tour the world.

It is believed that the gilded statue was the work of the theatre’s architect, Frank Matcham. Larger than life-sized (although that’s hard to ascertain given its lofty position), it depicts Pavlova in a classical tutu standing on one leg in what’s known as the “arabesque” position.

The story goes that the superstitious dancer hated the idea of the statue and always refused to look at it, even pulling closed the curtains on her cab when passing.

It was removed for safe-keeping in 1939 following the outbreak of World War II but apparently lost soon after.

The replica, which was created by Hary Franchetti  based on photographs, was reinstalled in 2006. The fate of the original remains a mystery.

PICTURES: Top – amateur_photo_bore (licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0); Below – David Adams.

LondonLife – Regent Street celebrates the Royal Wedding…

Union Jacks daub Regent Street in the West End in honour of the wedding in Windsor last weekend of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, now the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. PICTURE: Pete (licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0/image cropped)

What’s in a name?…Aldwych…

Now the name of a short, crescent-shaped thoroughfare which links the Strand with Kingsway in the West End (and the area surrounding it), the name actually refers back to the Saxon era.

The name Aldwych, which translates roughly as “old trading place” or “old settlement”, referred to a seventh century Anglo-Saxon settlement which was built outside the walls of the Roman city of Londinium. It was after Alfred the Great had the walls of the Roman city refortified in the late 9th century – moving the settlement back inside, that the former Anglo-Saxon settlement eventually became known by the moniker ‘old’.

The modern use of the word for the area dates from just after the dawn of the 20th century when the new street was created, doing away with a number of former streets including the notorious Wych Street. The name was subsequently used for a station on the tramway which ran under Kingsway (closed in the 1950s) and for an Underground station located nearby on the Strand (originally named Strand Station, it was soon changed to Aldwych and closed in 1994).

Notable buildings along Aldwych today include both Australia House and India House, both home to the High Commissions of their nations and both of which date from the early 20th century. It’s also home to Bush House, formerly the headquarters of the BBC World Service and now part of King’s College, London, as well as a number of theatres – including the Aldwych Theatre – and hotels.

 

This Week in London – Chinese New Year, and, David Milne at Dulwich

• London’s Chinatown will come alive this Sunday to mark the Year of the Dog. The biggest Chinese New Year celebrations outside of Asia feature a parade – which kicks off at 10am with a dragon and lion dance in Charing Cross Road before making its way through Chinatown where between noon and 6pm people get up close to lion dances,  take selfies with Chinese zodiac animals and enjoy traditional Chinese food. Festivities in Trafalgar Square, meanwhile, kick off at 11am with the Lions’ Eye-Dotting Ceremony at noon while there’s entertainment including live performances, family-friendly entertainments and martial arts displays at a series of West End locations including Charing Cross Road, Leicester Square, Shaftesbury Avenue between noon and 5pm. For more, check out the Visit London guide. Meanwhile the Museum of London Docklands is also celebrating the Year of the Dog with a range of free cultural events on Friday (the actual date of the New Year) including everything from ribbon dancing classes to taekwondo taster lessons, calligraphy and a spectacular dragon dance. For more, see www.museumoflondon.org.uk/museum-london-docklands. PICTURE: Paul (licensed under CC BY 2.0)

The works of one of Canada’s greatest modernist painters, David Milne (1882-1953), have gone on show at the Dulwich Picture Gallery. David Milne: Modern Painting follows Milne’s career chronologically, charting his development as an artist as he moves from New York to the war ravaged landscapes of Europe and back to the fields and open skies of North America. Highlights include Fifth Avenue, Easter Sunday (1912), the watercolour Bishop’s Pond (1916), Montreal Crater, Vimy Ridge (1919) – one of his most famous war paintings, White, the Waterfall (1921) and Summer Colours (1936). Runs until 7th May. Admission charges apply. For more, see www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk.

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LondonLife – Christmas takes to central London streets…

Reflections at Trafalgar Square. PICTURE: Raphaël Chekroun (licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0).

 

Carnaby Street ‘Carnival’. PICTURE: Kevin Oliver  (licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) (image cropped).

 

Flying high in the West End. PICTURE: Maureen Barlin (licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

 

Thrills at Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park. PICTURE: Kevin Oliver (licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

 

Outside St Paul’s at Covent Garden. PICTURE: Kevin Oliver (licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).