diamond geezer

 Saturday, January 24, 2009

St Giles Circus

A familiar corner of central London is entering a period of transformation. The junction of Charing Cross Road and Oxford Street at St Giles Circus, beneath Centre Point, has been a busy but unloved location for years. Impenetrable crowds of shoppers and tourists, a misplaced fountain and a giant silver Freddie Mercury, they all add up to a less than exhilarating environmental experience. But get your last looks in soon because one corner block in particular, right round from the Astoria to Waterstones, is about to vanish. And the replacement, inspired by the arrival of Crossrail, will be very different indeed.

Dionysus, closingIs there a better chippy in the heart of Central London than Dionysus (well, yes probably, but not one with such prolific footfall). This fine dining establishment has been dispensing salty vinegary potatoes and finest Greek cuisine to a discerning late night clientele for many years. It'd only recently reopened after a nasty fire, but last weekend the fish fryers spluttered their last and the shutters came down, and Dionysus is no more. Earlier in the week I watched as staff gutted the interior, then piled sinks and ovens into the back of a hired van and drove off to start anew elsewhere. In future years the existence of a mere McDonalds across the road will come as scant comfort to post-pub bingers.

Astoria, closedThen there's the Astoria, faded concert venue of legend, which has hosted most of the top bands of the past few decades plus a motley assortment of mainstream and cliquey club nights. Nowhere else in London, other than their balcony bar, have I ever mixed with such high-powered celebrities as Janine from Eastenders. And I shall always be grateful to the coatcheck staff, one distant birthday, for letting me have my jacket back when I lost my ticket somewhere on their beer-stained floors. The Astoria used to be a pickle warehouse, believe it or not, and was converted into a 2000-seater theatre in 1927. All now doomed, alas. The old auditorium stands silent, the snarling doormen have been made redundant and there's no next event to be announced in red letters on the board above the front entrance. I feel it should say something - either "Thank you, goodbye" or, more likely, "Coming next: DEMOLITION".

It's not taken long for the other shops here to fade away. It's shutters down at the Bureau de Change, and the front of the bright pink candy shop up the road is already boarded up. No chance of window shopping at the Harmony sex shop - the pavement's been barriered off and pedestrians now trudge along what used to be the road. And round the corner at Waterstones bookshop - terminated back on Christmas Eve - part of the illuminated sign above the door has been removed to reveal a Dillons shopfront underneath. This is an urban quarter in enforced and instant decline. And things can only get bleaker until, in a few weeks, there'll only be a gaping hole where these thriving buildings once stood.

The new Tottenham Court Road station is coming, and it's going to be huge. Roads are being closed, buses diverted and piped utilities shifted - and that's just for starters. A new St Giles piazza will be created, replacing the island fountain beneath Centre Point (and considerably more pedestrian friendly). There are transformational plans for a sweeping new underground ticket hall with additional entrances and greater access to the platforms below. And all so that Tottenham Court Road station can cope with the influx of passengers when Crossrail services arrive in (maybe) 2017. That's a heck of a long way off, but then this re-building project is scheduled to last longer even than the construction of the Olympic Park. There are eight years of disruption ahead until this corner of the West End is finally reborn in shiny steel and glass. But will the replacement coffee shops and cafes serve up a decent bag of chips? Not a chance, sadly.


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