diamond geezer

 Tuesday, November 28, 2023

A Nice Walk: Almost Oxford Street (1½ miles)

Crowds throng the length of Oxford Street, especially at this time of year, in search of gifts and for a gander at the sparkly lights. But sometimes you just want to go for a nicer walk, nothing too busy, a bit of a stroll, lots to see, multiple refreshment opportunities, very close by, won't take long. So here's a quieter mile and a half following the backstreets one road back from Oxford Street, a parallel hike through a retail hinterland most shoppers never see.



The normal route from Marble Arch to Tottenham Court Road is along Oxford Street, but if you're walking one street back you start by following Bryanston Street. It's round the rear of the former Odeon Marble Arch if you need to get your bearings. This end of the road's not what it used to be, having recently been reformulated as an office block on one side and a luxury residential tower on the other, of the kind where a bowler-hatted footman and a concierge greet you on the way in. The first cafes are a Pret and some hipster joint serving Well-being Tea, whereas the first restaurant is a reassuringly throwback Spaghetti House so perhaps a better bet. On-street parking is permitted in specified bays at £5.80 an hour, or £8.70 if your vehicle's a diesel.
Seen here: van drivers making circumspect deliveries, banks of bins.



A lot of this walk is 'behind something', here passing behind the massive Cumberland Hotel (which regained its original name this spring after many years under the Hard Rock umbrella). Much more intriguing is the church on the left, The Annunciation, now somewhat hemmed in but keen to welcome passers-by to step inside. The interior looks nigh medieval but is really Edwardian Gothic, as befits 'High' C of E verging on the Catholic. Don't expect to get further than the caged porch unless there's a mass on. The road wiggles slightly at Old Quebec Street, now with a casino on one side and a proper Georgian terrace on the other, as yet undevoured. Two more hotels, a gym and an underground car park are a reminder that not everyone is here for the shopping.
Seen here: a traffic warden using an app to check invisible parking tickets.



Crossing Portman Street brings us to Portman Mews South, both reminders that we're on the Portman Estate, a Tudor landgrab covering 110 acres of prime real estate. This isn't the nicest end, to be honest, more of a service road, including the designated entrance to M&S Collect By Car. Your dine-in food options are either modern Indian street food or The Three Tuns, a pub whose menu is so traditional you could safely bring your provincial in-laws. Know where to look, however, and a blank door on the corner leads to a luxury club oft frequented by celebs and wannabes, just not on a wet Monday lunchtime.
Seen here: a BMW with the registration number AB 2, glum office workers tapping at double screens.



Edwards Mews really is a service road and for one of the most famous shops on the planet, which'd be Selfridges. This is the side shoppers don't see, thereby missing out on a fine Fifties mosaic on the facade, although there is a direct connection through to Beauty & Fragrance so they might accidentally stumble out this way. Delivery drivers linger in doorways while they finish a fag, whereas true Selfridges staff use escalators to pass underneath the road and have their smokes on Wigmore Street. My great grandparents were married here in 1900, amid what's now the loading bay, but alas St Thomas's was demolished on the whim of Harry Gordon Selfridge to accommodate his store's rearward expansion.
Seen here: a caravan that sells coffee and profiteroles, because that's Selfridges for you.



You can thread onwards via either Picton Place or Barrett Street. One does vegan doughnuts and truffle burgers, the other crepes, waffles and pancakes, so take your pick. This is all to access St Christopher's Place, the bijou Time-Out-friendly alleyway which mixes outdoor dining and independent boutiques. Gas-fired heaters ensure alfresco take-up even in November, although as I watched a pigeon swoop between the diners I wondered why they'd risked it. Much of the foliage is plastic and the dangling Christmas decorations don't illuminate, but if you want a designer hat or Lebanese artisan ice cream you're in the right place.
Seen here: shops where very little stock is widely spaced out, but one sale is all they need.



No suitable cut-through to Marylebone Lane exists, a road pattern I blame on the long-buried River Tyburn. This means a brief diversion to Wigmore Street is required, but only long enough to pass from a Costa to an exclusive furniture showroom. Heavens they've eviscerated this end of Marylebone Lane since I first blogged it, notably replacing the brutalist lattice of the Welbeck Street Car Park with a boutique hotel. Humble haberdashery stalwarts Button Queen have also since fled to Wales, but you can now buy a Steinway piano from a glitzy showroom so there's progress. One further block has recently been razed so steel yourself for more.
Seen here: vents beneath a hotel pumping out gale force aircon through a flowerbox.



The chief tenant at the start of Henrietta Place is CBRE, and you can tell they're commercial whizzkids rather than civil service because the centrepiece of their lift foyer is a video arch screening a waterfall. Across the street is 300 year-old St Peter's church, otherwise known as Marylebone Chapel, which has been preserved as the HQ of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity. Our next 'round the back of's are the former House of Fraser, currently retrofitting into a restaurant-topped office block, and the still-viable John Lewis. The cheapest place to eat hereabouts is the cafe at the Royal College of Nursing which is open to all.
Seen here: a taxi-run, a row of parked motorbikes, a Members' Entrance.



The most pleasant spot on this walk is Cavendish Square, the Georgian centrepiece of the Marylebone estate, which for the last 50 years has concealed a car park beneath its leafy lawns. No, the building on the corner isn't the actual Belgian embassy, it's a satellite occupied by the Diplomatic Representation of Flanders. We're now ever so close to Oxford Circus, but one street back is Great Castle Street which crosses Regent Street behind H&M and Nike. On one side you can eat Italian and party into the small hours, on the other side you can eat Uyghur and withdraw money from a bank not quite important enough to have a branch on the main road.
Seen here: bouncers outside a club called Swingers (but it's crazy golf, not sleaze).



Oxford Market was once the main shopping hub hereabouts, a wooden arcade roughly hexagonal in shape dispensing "flesh, fish and fowl". It was established in 1731 as local competition for Carnaby Market but didn't thrive and was replaced by flats as early as 1881, because that's not solely a modern premise. These days it's a branch of Reiss selling designer clothing topped off by a stack of Barratt homes. Around its rim are hospitality spaces with optimistic outdoor seating, including one where everything is pink, whose seats are backed by Insta-friendly fake roses and whose entire clientele appeared to be female tourists. Keep going.
Seen here: stacks of unpacked cardboard boxes destined to become homeless bedding.



Eastcastle Street is what's 'round the back of' Uniqlo, Sports Direct and Next. It's nothing special, although it does boast Eglwys Gymraeg Canol Llundain, a pert Baptist chapel built to serve a Welsh congregation comprising workers displaced to the capital. Bilingual services are held every Sunday. Elsewhere you can buy a lottery ticket, throw axes for fun and get your lips plumped, but not all at the same time. On the last street corner is one of at least three London pubs called The Blue Posts, although this one's been trying hard to lose its definite article and the 'The' survives only in gold paint on the doors.
Seen here: pigeons tucking into a discarded kebab (and leaving the lettuce).



The most modern part of this walk is through Rathbone Square, which is where the Royal Mail's West End Delivery Office once stood. Today's it's where Facebook's London offices are based (it says Meta in the window), and is watched over by a security guard outside the boxing club. Access is via two arched passageways, jade-glazed, with discreet signs warning you're on CCTV and do not climb on the gates. Other 'do nots' include dogs on the grass and misuse of the water feature, because this is the kind of joyless beauty you get when public realm is private space.
Seen here: a knobbly water fountain with bowls for thirsty souls of varying heights.



For the final leg you could meander past the Bricklayers Arms and the BFI to Tottenham Court Road, but that's two roads back from Oxford Street. One road back is Hanway Street, a narrow rundown curve that lingers in a timewarp bubble, with particular echoes of the swinging 60s. Bradley’s Spanish Bar survives, as do a handful of salons and bureaux de changes, but the famous record shops have ebbed away and it feels like only Conservation Area Status is protecting the street from full-on mixed-use reimagining. Emerging at the far end between Boots and EE is somewhat of a jolt, and that's 'one road back' complete.
Seen here: binbags, bollards, a shop that sells gear to DJs, enough to fill an entire post to be honest.

I hope I've shown how much unfamiliarity lurks close by even the most famous of streets, one most of you will have walked multiple times. If you fancy a similarly unexpected adventure, I walked one street north so how about one street south?


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