In the heart of Lon­don, walk­ers may be tread­ing on se­crets of the city’s murky past, re­veals Nick Ryan

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

WHAT lies be­hind Lon­don’s the­atre­land? Be­hind the tacky neon strip joints and uber­cool bars of Soho? Or the swanky ho­tels and pent­houses lin­ing Park Lane and May­fair? Is Fitzrovia the new NoHo and who was the King of Quacks who once worked in Maryle­bone’s Har­ley Street?

The West End has been the beat­ing heart of Lon­don for two cen­turies or more. It is the cen­tre of the cap­i­tal’s glam­our, style and so­phis­ti­ca­tion, a place of glitz, film launches, air-kiss­ing celebri­ties, pa­parazzi, night­clubs and shop­ping. And it is of­ten the first port of call for over­seas vis­i­tors. With its the­atres, land­marks and restau­rants, it’s not hard to see why Lon­don­ers and tourists alike are drawn here.

But as you stroll down Pic­cadilly, past the lux­ury ho­tels and brass name­plates of May­fair, through Re­gent Street’s grand pa­rade of shops, up to­wards Ox­ford Cir­cus, wend your way through the tight streets of Soho — the cen­tre of gay, as well as bo­hemian, Lon­don — and push through the crowds at Le­ices­ter Square, there is lit­tle clue as to the murky past of many of its his­toric build­ings.

Op­u­lent par­ties were held here and scan­dals con­cealed: Nazi ad­mir­ers, fa­mous rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies and ec­cen­tric writ­ers all crammed within a few square kilo­me­tres of each other.

‘‘ Here Lenin, Stalin, Trot­sky and Mus­solini raged and raved, preached, prac­tised and pro­pogan­dised along­side a host of lesser­known fig­ures,’’ writes Lon­don tour guide and au­thor Ed Glin­ert.

Glin­ert’s new book, WestEndChron­i­cles, is a fas­ci­nat­ing tome to read be­fore visit­ing the area. Un­like other parts of the cap­i­tal, such as the in­fa­mous East End of Jack the Rip­per and the fic­tional vil­lain Fu Manchu, there are few guides ded­i­cated to the West End’s rich his­tory.

Sit­u­ated west of the City of Lon­don, it was his­tor­i­cally favoured by the rich elite as a place of res­i­dence be­cause it was usu­ally up­wind of the smoke drift­ing from the crowded city.

It has, ac­cord­ing to Glin­ert, four dis­tinct ar­eas: ‘‘ The bright lights and red lights of Soho, the ro­man­tic mews of May­fair, the el­e­gant but rigid streets of Maryle­bone, and the chic en­claves of Fitzrovia.’’

Yet at one point ‘‘ it was a noth­ing place . . . a fea­ture­less land at the bot­tom of the For­est of Mid­dle­sex with no Thames to feed it. Just a stream, the Ty­burn, helped map out the course of the area, run­ning along­side to­day’s Maryle­bone Lane.’’

Be­cause the land lay near the palaces of St James’s, White­hall and West­min­ster, it was ideal for new de­vel­op­ment when the cap­i­tal be­gan burst­ing at the seams, par­tic­u­larly af­ter the Great Fire of Lon­don in 1666 de­stroyed the old city. It was then that the West End be­came es­tab­lished.

The West End is an easy place to find. The four ar­eas ra­di­ate from Ox­ford Cir­cus. You can eas­ily walk about the West End or sim­ply hop on the Tube from sta­tions such as Ox­ford Cir­cus, Bond Street, Green Park, Pic­cadilly and Tot­ten­ham Court Road. Grab a Lon­don Un­der­ground map be­fore you set out, and a trusty A-Z guide.

Maryle­bone (in the north­west) is home to

Il­lus­tra­tion: Tom Jel­lett

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