diamond geezer

 Tuesday, April 16, 2024

 
 

WHITEHALL



£140
 
London's Monopoly Streets

WHITEHALL

Colour group: pink
Purchase price: £140
Rent: £10
Length: 500m
Borough: Westminster
Postcode: SW1

Whitehall is one of the most famous and historic streets in London but has been tucked away on the cheap-to-middling side of the Monopoly board, perhaps because it's not a real estate hotspot. Instead it's an administrative hub for the highest echelons of government, the focus of our Remembrance commemorations and a conduit for protest, as well as the site of what was once the world's largest royal palace. As a street it's longer than it used to be but shorter than you probably think it is, terminating short of Parliament Square at the southern end. Let's start off instead at Trafalgar Square, the pink set's focal point, and explore the less bureaucratic end first.



Whitehall kicks off with a Pret A Manger and swiftly settles into catering mostly for tourists. The first gift shop is called Memento London, a souvenir-packed honeytrap where punters are lured inside by the sight of Paddington Bear sitting on the roof of a Mini. Nextdoor is a 'magical' emporium which sells Hufflepuff scarves and Triwizard cups, plus knock-off goods from other fantasy franchises, and if you pause to window-shop a bloke in a red beanie will walk over and ask if you fancy a ride on an open-top tour bus. For higher level contemporary culture try opposite at the Trafalgar Theatre (originally the Whitehall) which has reverted to offering a diet of celeb-fronted plays now that Jersey Boys has finally vacated.

Here too are several pubs that sightseeing families might plausibly drift into, some of which are converted banks so not as traditional as they appear. I checked their menus for fish and chips and can confirm it costs £16.50 at Walkers, £17.45 at the Silver Cross, £18.50 at The Horse & Guardsman and £19.50 at The Old Shades and The Clarence, so best shop around. In particular try not to be tempted inside Café De Royale because it's not a nice place for a cuppa and a sitdown, more a candy bazaar flogging Pop Tarts and Cheetos whose sole nod to hot drinks is a machine on the counter dispensing £3.99 lattes. I'm pleased to say its interior was doggedly empty.



The first sidestreet is called Great Scotland Yard, this the location of the Metropolitan Police's first HQ. The name has followed to each subsequent site, the first being New Scotland Yard on the Victoria Embankment (1890), then New Scotland Yard in Victoria (1967), then back to the Victoria Embankment again (2016). Whitehall remains a sensitive zone, so much so that on my visit multiple police vans were parked up in the middle of the road, sharpshooters were positioned in many a doorway and several groups of gloved officers were carefully checking every single lamppost and junction box against a prescribed list in a red folder. Given that I was wandering around taking multiple photos and scribbling down notes, I'm relieved to have got away unchallenged.

And then the government buildings start. First up is the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero, last year's spin-off from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, most of which remains in the building behind as the Department for Business and Trade. If nothing else it's keeping the signwriters busy. Across the road are the Admiralty Buildings, another labyrinthine civil service warren, with 26 Whitehall being where Nelson's body rested on the night before his funeral. A lot of the buildings here present an ornate and overprotective frontage to the street, with very little clue as to which policies are being enacted behind the spikes and bomb-proof drapes.



Horseguards is the chief magnet for tourists hereabouts, specifically the two large sentry boxes to either side of the entrance to the parade ground. Onlookers take it in turns to pause with cameras in front of the mounted soldier with the funny hat, then ideally stand alongside, undeterred by signs warning that Horses May Kick Or Bite. The punters' big grins are in sharp contrast to the poor sod on his saddle, who can't have imagined on signing up that deadpan performance for a TikTok audience would be the central premise of his job. Were his helmet less obstructive he'd spend his entire duty staring at the two buildings opposite, either side of Horseguards Avenue, which appropriately for Monopoly purposes turn out to be a hotel and a house.



Hotel: The Old War Office
They didn't call the hotel the Old War Office because that would be commercial suicide, instead rechristening it The OWO. Once the domain of Kitchener and Churchill. it re-opened last autumn after an eight year refit with one half now containing 85 luxury residences for multimillionaires in need of a showy London pad. The remainder comprises 120 ultra-spacious hotel suites starting at £879 a night, plus a restaurant with a Michelin starred chef and a spa with a "gamechanging holistic wellness offering". This sumptuous internal rearrangement has been paid for by a group of Singaporean investors under the 'Raffles' brand, and I mention all this in case next time you're protesting down Whitehall you want to vent your righteous fury at the obscenely rich as well just as the government.

House: The Banqueting House
The Banqueting House is the sole surviving (visible) remnant of the Palace of Whitehall, designed in full-on classical style by Inigo Jones in 1622. It has a Rubens ceiling, a Flemish balustrade and an upper window through which Charles I walked just before being beheaded. It's also very closed at the moment pending renovation so hopefully you've already been inside. The original palace was Henry VIII's creation, a sprawling collection of royal buildings between here and the Thames, and you can probably guess what colour it started out given its name. Most of the palace burnt to the ground over two days in 1698 after a washerwoman left some wet linen too close to a charcoal burner, the Banqueting House being saved after adjacent buildings were frantically knocked down as a fire break. Whitehall once terminated here at an ornate archway called the Holbein Gate, beyond which it became a much narrower thoroughfare called The Street, before that too was demolished in 1759 to improve the flow of traffic.



Continuing south, back in the present day, the government buildings now come thick and fast. First the Scottish Office and the Welsh Office (the former significantly larger), then the Orwellian bulwark of the Ministry of Defence with its protective stripe of fenced-off lawn to either side. Three heroes of WW2 are commemorated with statues out front - that's Monty, Alan and Slim - and are highly unlikely to be joined by any heroes of WW3 because this spot is ground zero for instant vaporisation. The Cabinet Office has less oppressive premises across the road, although still with armed police on guard at unmarked doors and paparazzi waiting out front hoping to capture the guilty face of an emerging minister. I merely caught a glimpse of the scrawled notes under the arm of a senior civil servant.



The memorial in the middle of the street commemorates The Women of WW2 and takes the form of a bronze monolith bearing a coat-rack hung with evocative uniforms. It's been here since 2005, is hollow to save money and was part funded by Baroness Boothroyd's winnings on the gameshow Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? The next sideroad is Downing Street, now incredibly well fortified, with a gazebo for the checking of passes on the far side of a screen of black railings. Look closely and you'll see a few remnants of the red paint someone hurled at a recent demonstration, making absolutely no impact whatsoever on government policy. We have just two buildings and a pylon of Portland Stone to go.



The Cenotaph was originally made from wood and plaster because it was intended to be temporary, but was so widely admired that Lutyens designed a permanent structure to replace it. Medals, uniforms and duffel coats have been worn here annually since 1920. The peculiarly palatial edifice opposite, set back from the road, is Richmond House which was built in 1987 to house the Department of Health. More recently it's been pencilled in as the site for a temporary Commons chamber while the Palace of Westminster undergoes urgent repairs, but a heads-in-the-sand approach has so far reprieved the building. And this is where Whitehall unexpectedly terminates, the last 100m down to Parliament Square being called Parliament Street instead. For confirmation see the street sign outside the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, partway down the balustrade...



...which thankfully saves me from writing two more paragraphs.


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