A Straight Line Walk Across London

by Paul K Lyons

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49 - A photo show, a horse repository and a Mousetrap but definitely no nude hunks

Charing Cross Road is leading me away from the 300 easting, so, tempting as it is to carry on along it with all the bookshops (not least the famous Foyles and number 84), I turn east along Cranbourn Street. Apart from the Spanish Guitar Centre, this road is dominated by eating houses (Chicken Cottage, Caffe Nero, Pret a Manger, Eden Rock Cafe, Spaghetti House).

At a junction of six roads (which is 200 yards south of Seven Dials, a 17th century junction of seven roads), I stop at 5 Great Newport Street, The Photographers' Gallery, a slim building faced with shiny black tiles. Sir Joshua Reynolds, the celebrated 18th century painter and first president of the Royal Academy, lived at a house here in the 1750s, although by the end of the 18th century, it had been rebuilt and split into two. As an artist, Reynolds was much influenced by Continental trends, first Italian and later Flemish, but he is best known for his portrait works. The National Portrait Gallery's collection contains 21 portraits OF him, and 734 portraits BY him! Since photography has largely replaced painted portraits, it seems only right that this site, along with 8 Great Newport Street, now belongs to The Photographers' Gallery, which claims to be the country's primary venue for contemporary photography. At present, mid-February, the Gallery is showing the short-listed entries for the annual Citibank Photography Prize: works by the Americans Robert Adams and Joel Sternfeld, the Brit Peter Fraser and the South African David Goldblatt. The prize, now in its eighth year, is worth £20,000 - and definitely deserves more publicity.

For a few yards I walk north along Upper St Martin's Lane (towards Seven Dials). The east side of this road is more interesting than the west. On the east side, another black-fronted building, the notorious Stringfellows, is squashed between one pub, The Sussex, and another, the Slug and Lettuce. Stringfellows, named after its playboy owner Peter, boasts that it is 'London's premier club and restaurant'. It offers 'table side and stage dancing Monday to Saturday 8:00pm-3:30am' and 'superb full service a la carte'. Up to 100 nude table-side dancers are on hand each night (a nudity license has been in place only since 2002). Every dancer pays Stringfellows a sizeable fee to perform and to charge his customers. On Saturdays only 'the Hunks join the Angels'. A topless dance from either costs £10; a table-side nude dance by an Angel costs £20; but a table-side nude dance by a Hunk is priceless (because Hunks only undress as far as their g-strings). While the trendily-named Slug and Lettuce is one of a chain with more than 50 pubs round the country all called the same, The Sussex retains a more traditional character.

At 5 St Martin's Lane, a tall white tower - Orion House - rises far above most of the older buildings in the vicinity. Originally built in the late 1950s as Thorne House, it was redesigned and refurbished in 1990 by RHWL Partnership Architects. On its north side, a facade, like a long elongated Roman shield, carries a similarly long and elongated sculpture, from the original building, by Geoffrey Clarke. In trying to describe it, all I can think of is a canoe, which is standing vertical, on its front end, and which has suffered the twin disasters of losing its sides and being holed by a bunch of spikes. However, I may not have fully appreciated the artwork. It's worth noting that, until it made way for Thorne House, this was the site of Aldridge's Horse and Carriage Repository dating from the 18th century. It was especially known, in late Victorian times, for middle class and tradesmen's horses, a trade which ended in 1926, when motor car sales took over.

The actor's union, Equity, is based in Guild House on the corner of West Street and Upper St Martin's Lane. An inconsequential plaque, in the style of a piece of film, stuck on the wall, recognises Alec Guinness and his 'unique contribution to British cinema'. But there's no indication as to why it's there, in that spot particularly. Celebrities (and those that like to spot them) flock to the Ivy, a restaurant only a few yards from Guild House, that opened in 1917. The Ivy's windows have sheets of leaded lights, small diamonds of mostly smoky brown, but also dark blue, red and green glass. Peter Stringfellow likes to tell interviewers interested in his restaurant that he can't understand why a party of men would go to eat at The Ivy when they'd enjoy themselves more across the road in his establishment.

To stay as close as I can to the 300 easting, I need to zig-zag north, through Holborn towards the British Museum. First I turn into West Street. At the end of the road, facing me, I can see the red brick front of the former Welsh Presbyterian chapel on Shaftesbury Avenue, once home to the Limelight Club and now to Walkabout, an Australian Bar. West Street, like its neighbour Tower Street, were both laid out in the 17th century.

A chapel at 24 West Street, known as 'La Pyramide de la Tremblade', was built for Protestant Huguenot refugees from France who settled in the Soho area. In the 1740s, John Wesley took over the lease and it became the first Methodist chapel in London. Wesley's sister lived in the chapel house at number 26. By the end of the century, it had become a 'free chapel' under the Bishop of London and was also used as school. In 1888, the chapel was purchased by St Giles-in-the-Fields. According to In And Around Covent Garden which quotes the Rev. Gordon Taylor, the rector of St Giles for 50 years, West Street has an important place in ballet history. For much of the 20th century, he says, number 26 was rented out to, or used by, ballet dancers for training. Prior to the war, for example, it was rented to Margaret Craske and Anna Severskaya. When Taylor became rector in 1949, he found a chorus line, from the John Tiller School of Dancing, practising in the bomb-damaged house.

I need to turn right, between St Martin's Theatre and New Ambassadors Theatre, into Tower Court. Both theatres were built to designs by Sprague, both opened in the 1910s, and both are Grade II listed today. In 1952 (when I was almost exactly six months old), Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap opened at the Ambassadors Theatre. In 1974 it transferred to St Martin's Theatre. It is still running today. A large round blue plaque proclaims: 'The Mousetrap - The world's longest running play had its 50th anniversary performance at this theatre on November 25 2002.' A few years prior to the Mousetrap transfer, Anthony Shaffer's thriller 'Sleuth' ran for a very successful three years before transferring to the Garrick. New Ambassadors Theatre (originally just 'Ambassadors Theatre') is smaller than its companion and has a smaller stage. Between the wars, London audiences got their first look at both Paul Robeson and Vivien Leigh here. Since 'The Mousetrap', New Ambassadors Theatre has put on some notable successes, such as '84 Charing Cross Road' and 'Les Liasons Dangereuses' in the past, and, more recently, The Vagina Monologues' and a revival of 'Abigail's Party'. Its current show is called 'Stones in his Pockets' by Marie Jones. The 'News of the World' says it is 'magnificent and uplifting'.

 A Straight Line Walk Across London - along the 300 easting

by Paul K Lyons
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