J OURNEYS: THE S P I R I T OF DISCOVERY
In the heart of London, walkers may be treading on secrets of the city’s murky past, reveals Nick Ryan
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