Monopoly Guide to London for Tourists - #11: Leicester Sq, Coventry St & Piccadilly
Where are they?
Leicester Square, Coventry Street and Piccadilly are all in the heart of London’s West End, where tourists flock to visit Chinatown, take in a show, buy tat from one of the many tacky souvenir shops or eat in a generic epidemic restaurant.
What’s the story?
Leicester Square was developed in the 1630s by the 2nd Earl of Leicester, Robert Sydney. His mansion, Leicester House occupied what is now the north side of Leicester Square.
Coventry Street is named after King Charles II’s Secretary of State Charles Coventry, whilst Piccadilly is not named after a landowner, architect or any person for that matter …but a type of shirt collar popular in the 17th century. The ‘picadil’ was a stiff collar and ‘must have’ gentleman’s fashion item made popular by a tailor called Robert Baker, becoming so ubiquitous that the street's name changed from Portugal Street to Piccadilly.
How do I get there?
Leicester Square Underground station is on Charing Cross Road, right next to Leicester Square. Piccadilly Circus Underground station is at the east end of Piccadilly, Green Park Underground station is in the middle and Hyde Park Corner Underground station can be found at the far west end of Piccadilly.
What’s it like now?
I understand the attraction for some tourists, but Leicester Square, Coventry Street and Piccadilly Circus are probably amongst my least favourite places in London on account of their tackiness, the overpriced and not particularly great restaurants and the sheer number of tourists clogging the pavements. I’ve always imagined that Piccadilly Circus to be our own half hearted attempt at Times Square in New York. Piccadilly however is rather grander with a sort of French boulevard feel and as you walk away from Piccadilly Circus, the shops and restaurants become more luxurious and high end and the buildings seem to effortlessly ooze grandeur.
Where would I stay?
Although unlikely you’ll stay there, I have to mention ‘The Ritz’, a Grade II listed hotel, opened in 1906 by Cesar Ritz after being sacked by the Savoy Hotel. It’s known the world over and intrinsically linked with glamour, opulence and famous guests. Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher died in 2013 in a suite at the Ritz, having been staying there for about 4 months.
Just off Piccadilly is the Cavendish Hotel, then a little further towards Piccadilly Circus is Le Meridien. The Ham Yard Hotel recently opened in a newly developed courtyard area a stone’s throw from Piccadilly Circus. The Thistle Piccadilly is a 4-star hotel on Whitcomb Street, close to Leicester Square and I’ve also been to the Radisson Blu Edwardian on Leicester Square itself. If you’re looking for some 5-star luxury modern sheek then W London might do the trick. There are more affordable options for those travelling on a budget, such as the Premier Inn Leicester Square.
What’s of interest?
Burlington Arcade is a covered shopping street which has been providing a largely wealthy customer base with antiques, silver, jewellery, watches, shoes, perfumes and fashion accessories since 1819.
You’ll notice the arcade has its own private Police force known as ‘Beadles’ (they’re the ones in the top hats and waistcoats) who for the last 200 years have been ensuring amongst other things, visitors don’t whistle, open an umbrella, sing or play a musical instrument or carry a large parcel. There is an intriguing reason why the Burlington Arcade is covered which I’ve written about previously, and just for the record, it’s apparently the longest covered street in Britain.
Situated in Burlington House next door to the arcade is the Royal Academy of Arts which has been promoting the visual arts through exhibitions, education and debate since 1768. The Royal Academy was founded as a privately run and funded charity, run by artists, elected by their peers (still the case today) as well as being home to Britain’s longest established art school.
Fortnum and Mason
Fortnum and Mason (or Fortnum’s as it is known) is a large department store founded in 1707 by Hugh Mason and William Fortnum. The latter happened to be Queen Anne’s footman and as such had to ensure the palace was lit by brand new candles each evening. He kept the old ones, sold them on and used the money to help fund his new business enterprise. As such, you’ll notice candles are a motif throughout the shop, which sells groceries, household goods, men’s and women’s fashion and lots of other things, all at a slightly higher price than you can buy elsewhere. They’ve held Royal Warrants for some 150 years, currently providing ‘general provisions’ to the Queen and as such have garnered the nick name ‘The Queen’s Grocers’. If I’m in the area on a walk, I often take people in to Fortnum and Mason, just to experience the opulence of the place, and on the off-chance they’re handing out samples at the confectionary counter.
The oldest bookshop in London has been selling books on Piccadilly since 1797 when it was founded by John Hatchard. Although now owned by Waterstones, Hatchards are bookseller of choice to The Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh and Prince Charles.
St James’s Piccadilly
A rare example of a church designed by Sir Christopher Wren outside the ‘City of London’. St James’s was badly damaged in 1940 during an air raid, and subsequently restored. The spire is apparently made of fibreglass. Today you’ll no doubt stumble across the market in the courtyard and the church hosts regular concerts; mostly classical, but also welcomes well known faces from the world of folk and pop.
Waterstones Piccadilly is the bookseller’s flagship shop and the largest bookshop in London, housed in an imposing 1930s art deco building that once once home to Simpson’s department store which in turn was the inspiration for the classic British sitcom ‘Are you being served?”.
Running parallel to Piccadilly on the south side is Jermyn Street which has been a mecca for high end gentlemen’s fashion for 300 years. You’ll still find an abundance of shirt shops, but also everything a gentleman could possibly need in the form of shoes, cuff links, ties, grooming, cigars, whiskey, natty dressing gowns and lots more. Just to stand out in the crowd you’ll also find Paxton and Whitfield (the Queens cheese shop) and Floris (the Queen’s perfumeries), both of which have been in operation since the 18th century.
The term ‘circus’ literally comes from the Latin for ‘circle’ and like many junctions in the area, it was once a roundabout. For some reason, many people meet at the ‘statue of Eros’ which has been moved a number of times since it was originally installed in 1893 as a fountain and called the ‘Angel of Christian Charity’. The Eros moniker seems to have stuck, and even appears on maps.
You’ll be unable to avoid noticing a huge wall of advertising which is able to exist because it is apparently the only plot of land in the vicinity not owned by the Crown estates (The Queen) who have an incredible dislike for advertising on their buildings. To make up for it, all the advertising is on that one building.
The Criterion Restaurant
Established in 1874 (and recently renamed Savini at the Criterion), this beautiful restaurant is a window back to a time when Piccadilly Circus wasn’t chock full of cheap souvenir shops, human statues and burger restaurants. It’s been used as a backdrop in many a film, and Sherlock Holmes fans might be interested to learn that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle used it as a setting for the initial meeting between Dr Watson and Sherlock Holmes in the very first Sherlock Holmes story; ‘A Study in Scarlet’.
Café De Paris
Just off Piccadilly Circus is Café De Paris which opened in 1924 as one of London’s first nightclubs; its dance floor modelled on the ballroom of the Titanic. Today, they still host ‘the most debaucherous cabaret show London has seen’ (their words, not mine) and regular club nights.
Just north of Leicester Square is Chinatown, based around the very un-Chinese sounding Gerrard Street, which as you’d expect is brimming with Chinese food options which have been multiplying since the first Chinese settled there in the 1920s. A favourite amongst Londoners is the fabulously named ‘Wong Kei’ on Wardour Street, largely due to the legendary rudeness of the waiting staff.
In the centre of Leicester Square, a rather bemused looking statue of William Shakespeare looks out at the overly expensive cinemas, chain restaurants, tourists and street performers, adorned by a quote from Twelfth Night which reads ‘There is no darkness, but ignorance’ which currently strikes me as being particularly pertinent.
The large Odeon Cinema on the east side is often the venue of choice for Film Premieres, but I’d really recommend checking out the nearby Prince Charles Cinema, who specialise in showing cult, art house and classic films alongside recent mainstream releases at a much more affordable price. When I moved to London 20 years ago, the Prince Charles Cinema was a home from home.
The TKT half price ticket booth is situated on the south side of the square; great if you’re looking for bargain tickets to a West End show for that day. Like every tourist hotspot around the world you’ll find an M & Ms World and also a Lego Store.
Leicester Square is generally somewhere I avoid, unless I’m required to pass through it en-route to somewhere else.
You are in Theatreland. There are theatres everywhere, but I just wanted to mention the Jermyn Street Theatre, a small studio theatre with an audience capacity of 70. If you’re looking for theatre that is intimate and independent, then you should definitely see what the Jermyn Street Theatre have to offer.
The Burlington Arcade - Piccadilly
If you're wandering around Mayfair and Piccadilly, which as I've mentioned before has a reasonably high concentration of pretty swish shops and certainly quite a few that hold Royal Warrants, then you might find yourself in what is the longest covered shopping street in Britain. It's called the Burlington Arcade and has been providing the discerning and generally wealthy customer with antiques and silver, jewellery and watches, shoes, perfumes and fashion accessories since 1819.
Like a lot of places in London, there is often a story attached, and the Burlington Arcade is no exception. The Royal Academy of Arts is now next door, occupying a rather grand building called Burlington House, which gets its name from Richard Boyle, the 1st Earl of Burlington who bought it in the 17th century. It was a much later occupant, Lord George Cavendish, who in the early 19th century reputedly got so fed up with people throwing rubbish from the adjoining street in to his garden, that he decided to cover the entire street. He did also state that the newly covered street should also be "for the gratification of the public and to give employment to industrious females", which strikes me as being somewhat ambiguous.
Either way I can only surmise that Lord George Cavendish was a bit of a worrier and perhaps a bit of a kill joy. My reason for thinking this (aside from the fact that he covered the whole street in the first place), is because he also employed some former members of the Cavendish family's regiment, the 10th Hussars to act as a sort of police force on his covered shopping street. In fact, you can still see them there today (different guys obviously) dressed in Edwardian frock coats and top hats, forming what is apparently the smallest private police force in existence. You can see one of them on the above photo, his back turned, looking down the arcade. They're known as Beadles and still uphold the rules and regulations of the arcade, so if you do happen to go, remember ... no whistling, no open umbrellas, no singing or playing of musical instruments, definitely don't even think about carrying a large parcel and please, please, please ... no babies' prams thank you very much. Oh yes, there's no running either.
As you walk in, you'll notice that there are a couple of rather sturdy looking bollards in the centre of both entrances. They're a reasonably new addition in the grand scheme of things, another security measure, added in 1964 after six masked men drove straight down the arcade in a Jaguar Mark 10, smashed in to a jewellery shop, stole £35,000 worth of bling and drove off again and were never caught. The funny thing about this incident is that it's mentioned in various sources and the car is always, without fail described as a 'Jaguar Mark 10'. Now I've just done it. I know nothing about cars, but evidently this piece of information seems to be of vital importance to everyone and I doubt if it had been ... I don't know ... a Fiesta, it would get mentioned quite so much. Therefore I wonder whether it's because it was a swish car (I'm assuming it was) and that in itself is unusual, or whether the car could accommodate six fully grown men that is so startling. I have no idea.
Either way, it's not particularly important, so I'll end by saying that if you are in the vicinity, then check out the Burlington Arcade and if you're feeling particularly mischievous, then why not see what happens if you whistle, or run. You could even go all out and play a musical instrument. Once you've been swiftly ejected, then head along to the Royal Academy of Arts, and there under the arched entrance you'll find a rather unusual thing ... a wooden telephone box. It's one of the original prototypes known as the K2 telephone box, made in the 1920's and designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott. I think three were made and placed discreetly around to see how the public got on with them after a competition had been set to find a new design for the now iconic red telephone box. Just thought I'd mention it.
WeekDay Wanders in May
Aside from doing my regular 'pay what you want' weekend walks, I also do weekday walks if people enquire and would like me to do a special walk for a group. They don't have to be any of the three I do on Saturdays and Sundays and actually, the walks I've done just recently have all been completely different.
An epic stroll through the City of London - Peter, Liesbeth and Ezra were over for a few days from Holland, and were very kindly put in touch with me via Dutch blogger in London right now who not surprisingly writes about what she would do if she was in London ... right now. I put together a few suggestions for walks based upon various things they wished to see and they chose a walk that began in Covent Garden, moved down the Strand, taking in the 12th Century Temple Church, nipped in and out of the streets around Fleet Street, then after a brief stop off at St Paul's Cathedral cut through the City of London, through Leadenhall Market and down to the Tower of London. Here they are standing by the statue of Hodge, the beloved cat of Samuel Johnson who was responsible for compiling the first definitive English dictionary in 1755. Samuel Johnson compiled the dictionary, not his cat ... as far as I'm aware.
Fire of London walk - Just last week, I was asked to do a walk that followed the path of the Great Fire of London, a catastrophic event that occurred in 1666 and in just four days burnt down a vast swathe of the City of London. We began at the Monument, just a short distance from where the fire began in the bakery belonging to Thomas Farriner (or sometimes Farynor) and walked through the City towards Bank and then up to St Paul's Cathedral, which was engulfed in flames on the third day of the fire. Here you can see the group with the new St Paul's Cathedral in the background, the masterpiece of Sir Christopher Wren, who was responsible (along with a lot of help) for rebuilding the City after the fire.
A Westminster Wander - On Monday I had the pleasure of taking a school group on a walk around Westminster. We met in Trafalgar Square, then headed down Whitehall past the spot that was used as the entrance to the Ministry of Magic in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix film, saw Banqueting House which was the real location for the execution of King Charles I in 1649, had a few photos taken with Horse Guards on their horses and ordinary guards without their horses, then nipped through St James's park to Buckingham Palace (which is currently hidden behind a recently erected temporary stadium for the Queen's Diamond Jubilee celebrations) then past St James's Palace and up to Piccadilly. Here they are outside the Royal Academy of Arts where I left them in time for the next activity on their schedule.
So there you have it. If you'd like me to do a weekday walk at some point, then let me know. The next regular weekend walks are on the 9th & 10th June.
Bowl Of Chalk
Bowl Of Chalk based shenanigans.