diamond geezer

 Wednesday, January 13, 2016

6) Holborn to Bond Street
(1½ miles)

Crossrail is the first new railway line under the centre of London for yonks, because boring tunnels beneath densely-packed infrastructure is both ridiculously difficult and ridiculously expensive. Merely walking the route on the surface is a heck of a lot easier, if a heck of a lot slower. If you're trying to follow along as I do precisely that, then the official Crossrail geographical map is here, Open Street Map is here, and my Google Maps approximation is here. Covent Garden, Soho and Mayfair await.

Despite scoring an almost direct hit on Holborn station, there'll be no interchange here. It wouldn't do for an express railway to stop too often, and there isn't the money to keep knocking down lots of existing buildings to make way for additional access, so Midtown will essentially be skipped when the purple line comes to town. A peculiarity of the route ahead is that the two tunnels follow quite disparate paths, the horizontal distance between them widening from about 10m to more like 100m as Seven Dials approaches. What's driving them apart isn't immediately clear, it might be geology or some other underground obstruction, but an oddly disjoint half mile awaits. Were I following the eastbound tunnel it'd be a fairly straightforward run along High Holborn from the pancake place to St Giles, but I'm following the westbound and that means heading further south into Covent Garden.

It's tempting to stop for a beer at the Princess Louise, less so the Hoxton Holborn hotel, before heading round the back of both. Some fairly narrow streets remain off the main drag, and even a bona fide primary school plus what used to be the City Lit. We cross Drury Lane approximately precisely where the very first Sainsbury's used to be, then follow Shorts Gardens to a perennial fish and chip favourite of every London listings medium, the Rock and Sole Plaice. Crossrail's tunnels are at their maximum distance apart at this point, namely a considerable portion of Endell Street. Despite being so close to the tourist throng not many visitors reach these parts, whereas neighbouring Neal Street is heaving with them, no doubt tracking down some hip pair of trainers or organic juice... or cheese, with the dogleg back alley of Neal's Yard also directly on the line of travel.

Neither do many people realise there's a pocket park behind Shaftesbury Avenue, essentially the churchyard of St Giles Church, including a corral of playground equipment which might cheer up any stroppy toddler who's just been dragged round the West End shops. This whole area used to be a maze of squalor, the infamous St Giles, where in the 18th century poverty, gin and crime ruled. Echoes of the original street pattern remain, but entire blocks are being merged and replaced by shiny glass as the developers move in, and Crossrail is the catalyst driving the whirlwind. For a start it knocked down the entire block from the Astoria to Oxford Street, of which we have already spoken, and now it's moving in on Denmark Street. Tin Pan Alley's musical heritage is to be swept away by something more appropriate to a location 20 yards from Crossrail's central node, and the neighbouring streetscape ought to be nervous.

Here's a peculiar fact for you. Even though the newly expanded Tottenham Court Road station covers a considerable area at ground level, at no point does the westbound Crossrail tunnel pass directly underneath. Instead it runs beneath the junction of Charing Cross Road and Denmark Street and heads under the first row of undemolished shops, from Starbucks and Superdrug down to the bookshop on the corner. Less unsurprisingly it continues towards Soho Square, which is one day destined to be the crossing point of Crossrail 1 and Crossrail 2. You might recall a lot of construction work here, especially in the roadway around the perimeter, but that's all now been cleared away and the square is once again resplendent in its muddy churned-up pigeon-infested winter finery.

The other exit from TCR station will be in Dean Street, an unfortunate thoroughfare that's been blocked by Crossrail construction for almost longer than any other. Livelihoods have been replaced by a hole, eventually an egress for shoppers onto Oxford Street, because somebody in the planning office at the point of design suggested this was the point of least resistance. The worksite has been damned useful for the deployment of trucks and the pouring of concrete, but it's been a more than challenging few years for the restaurant, betting shop and supermarket hemmed in up the side, which if they can hold out can at least expect a footfall windfall later. The westbound tunnel again won't pass beneath the ground level building, but it is swinging back in now, and by Noel Street is back pretty much alongside the eastbound.

We've reached proper Soho now, a warren of small-scale businesses, courts and mews, where an age-old pub might rub up alongside an upstart concept restaurant with queues down the street. Wardour, Berwick and Poland bring us to Great Marlborough Street, which (with its Great lopped off) is that orange property in Monopoly whose location you can never place. So you now know, it's one back from Oxford Street, joining the Palladium to Liberty, running directly above Crossrail its entire length, and where rents now cost considerably more than £14. Which brings us to Regent Street and the West End proper, which is crossed in the narrow stretch between what used to be Dickins & Jones and what is now the Apple Store. Watch out for the bloke in the oversized hat plugging the legendary Golf Sale, which is still going strong up a sidestreet but which will (so a notice in the window says) be relocating nearer to Marylebone on some unspecified date.

The obvious place for Crossrail to dig its next station was always going to be Hanover Square. This is a rare expanse of open ground in the property jungle of Mayfair, hence nowhere near as controversial as despoiling, say, Grosvenor Square with the American Embassy looking on. Even so nobody's dared to dig up the grassy quadrangle itself, whose benches, palm trees and flowerbeds survive, while traffic is long extinguished from two sides of the square and one of the feeder streets. This spanner-shaped worksite has engulfed all the buildings along one side of Tenterden Street, and stretches to within one shop's-length of New Bond Street, not that the luxury clientèle there will have noticed. There's precedent for the Georgian buildings hereabouts to replaced by something considerably more modern, but the oversized creation destined for Bond Street station's eastern gatehouse resembles a giant silicon chip with a grey blancmange on top, only far less attractive than you just imagined.

Bond Street station's western exit will be rather further from New Bond Street but considerably closer to the existing Bond Street station. This time precisely one block of cityscape has been eliminated, immediately behind the West One Shopping Centre, and barriers have slimmed three of the surrounding streets to narrow passageways. This is the Davies Street construction site, located in an unexpectedly residential area on the northern edge of the Grosvenor Estate. What homeowners must have thought when their neighbours were replaced by a hole and then a crane must have been unprintable, let alone the sight of the concrete lift shaft now rising high to claim thousands of square feet of sky. You should take a look back here after you've been round Selfridges sometime, indeed you'll probably be doing just that in three years' time, bright yellow carrier bags dangling, to head home to wherever you can afford to live by then.

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