|Okay, it's Boxing Day 2007 and I've been discovered writhing in a corner of my study, calling weakly for bi-carbonate of soda! There, that's better. Now by way of effecting a full recovery, how about if I spend some time juicing up your appreciation of the meeting point for the Beatles Magical Mystery Tour. I.E., Tottenham Court RoadTube. In case, you know, you get there a few minutes early and would like to get the electrical activity going on behind your eyes cavorting like a dolphin.
Okay, so what have we got here? It's an intersection, with Oxford Street running to the west, New Oxford Street to the aast, Tottenham Court Road to the north, and Charing Cross Road to the south. Busy of course. And pretty non-descript, you say.
I wouldn't be so sure about that, if I were you. Let's take TCR to start with. It's one of the oldest streets in London. There was a road here eight centuries ago. We're not sure about the name - we think it might be named for some Saxon chieftain. Other philologists think it's from a Saxon word for look out point. Today it's the London street - in its lower regions at any rate, that most resembles Hong Kong. Lots of cheap, flash electrical goods shops. There's much much more than that, though. It's one of those London streets that's like an iceberg - what you can see is only five percent of what's there. The other 95 percent - what's beneath the casual "surface" - well, that's where the really rich pickings are. I get into this a bit at the start of my Bohemian Fitzrovia Pub Walk, which starts at Goodge StreetTube, halfway up Tottenham Court Road.
As for Oxford Street - well, it's the biggest shopping street in Europe. Now there's a yawn for you. What's not a yawn is that it's a Roman Road. Like all of their roads it's straight as an arrow. For centuries it was the trail of jeers and tears - the way of the condemned. I.E., those who were shortly to die at Tyburn - London's principal execution site - were taken in the condemned carts along Oxford Street to Tyburn, at the western end, where Marble Arch is today. One of Thomas Hardy's finest poems - Coming Up Oxford Street - rips through your brain when you read it with that historical context in view.
As for Charing Cross Road...well, today it's of course famous for bookshops. But the name - like so many London place names - thrums with history. It takes us straight back to 1290 and the death of Edward I's Queen, Eleanor, up in Harby. He was devastated. Meaning it was a trail of tears bringing her body back to London - well, technically to Westminster - for burial in Westminster Abbey. Took 12 days. He ordered a cross be erected at each of cortege's overnight stopping points. They came to be known as the Eleanor Crosses. The last one went up in the little village of Charing, which was the "outskirt" of Whitehall Palace. It stood where Trafalgar Square is today. Had an interesting history. Was destroyed during the interregnum in the 17th century. Symbol of royalty you know - important that it be purged. The one we've got today is a 19th century reproduction. You can see it in front of the Charing Cross hotel. It comes in to several walks. Catch one of them and you'll learn how to read a statue, as one of the guides invitingly puts it.
Now take a look at the big modern building. Centrepoint. It's 1960s. And it was very controversial in its day. It was the unacceptable face of the 60s London property boom. To build it they had to raze a little mini community - there was a small mansion block there, some shops, an Italian trattoria or two, etc. Well, you get the picture. It was serviceable, useful, a piece of ordinary, but living London. Razed it was though. And Centrepoint went up. The thing is, though, that the developer, Harry Hyams, kept it empty. It was financially advantageous to do so. Now how could that be? Well, very simply because if he had got tenants into that office space on fixed rents on a however-many-years lease...well, that actually would have slowed the rate of appreciation of the property. Property prices were going up so fast at the time that it was better for him to keep it empty because the office space would rent for quite a bit more in 1967 than it would have done in 1966, and more in 1968 than it would have done in 1967, and so on...so it was better to keep it empty and use it as collateral for loans for further building projects. Get locked into rental agreements and you were slamming the brakes on the building's capital appreciation. So, basically Centrepoint replaced something useful, and lived-in and worked-in - something that indeed was human scale - with something unreal and dead and empty and indeed ominous. Again, a poet took up the cudgels. It's a wonderful piece called Ode to Centrepoint. I'll see if I can dig it out and put up a stanza or two.
And as long as we're at it, how's this for a surge of "electrical activity"? Remember those prisoners in the condemned carts trundling on out to Tyburn? Well, here was a cheerful sight for them - something that would have concentrated their minds. Yup, you guessed it: in days of yore a gallows stood here. I suppose Londoners perhaps felt that in its starkness and its heightness - looming up over them - they perhaps felt - subliminally at any rate - that Centrepoint was a gallows of sorts!
Tyburn Tree. The gallows at Centrepoint. The Beatles. Er, Swinging London, you say. (Oh dear, I really should have resisted that. Sorry.)
Now so much for the London of 50 years ago. If you've got time - and for heaven's sakes, make sure you do have time...don't get it wrong and miss Richard's Beatles Walk! - anyway, if you get to Tottenham Court RoadTube 10 or 15 minutes early well, quickly nip round to the other side of Centrepoint and take a look at the old church there, St. Giles-in-the-Fields. The name itself is evocative isn't it. But in more ways than you'd probably know, at least at first acquaintance. It's St. Giles because the church stands on the site of a leper hospital and chapel, built there in the 1100s. And St. Giles was of course the patron saint of outcasts. There's another St. Giles in the City of London - and you know what, it's also on the edge of town, in today's Barbican district, just north of Aldersgate. No coincidence that. The point being that nobody wanted people with that terrible disfiguring disease anywhere near the centre. They were "outcast". And how appropriate that the Great Plague should start in the parish of St. Giles-in-the-Fields in 1665. The churchyard is gorged with plague victims. And one last connection, also in the churchyard is the great architect Sir John Soane, who died in 1837. Connections, connections. Always connections: Soane designed the font in the church...and, much more important, his house in Lincoln's Inn Fields is the most magical small museum in all of London! We see it on the Inns of Court walk, of course.