diamond geezer

 Thursday, May 30, 2024



London's Monopoly Streets


Colour group: orange
Purchase price: £180
Rent: £14
Length: 200m
Borough: Westminster
Postcode: WC2

We've reached the oranges, the awkward group on the Monopoly board where the streets are less famous, in one case ridiculously brief and in one case doesn't exist. When Victor and Marjory from Waddingtons were selecting names in 1935 they decided some of the groups should have themes, and the oranges are therefore all underlyingly connected to law and order. On Bow Street we're talking Magistrates, Police and Street Runners, augmented by one other ridiculously famous building which is just as well because a blogpost about a 200m street might otherwise have been really dull.

n.b. This is Bow Street in Covent Garden which is nowhere near Bow Road in Bow, nor close to the church of St-Mary-le-Bow which Cockneys are supposed to be born within earshot of.

Bow Street was laid out in the 1630s, built at the behest of the 4th Earl of Bedford (who's also responsible for the piazza and the church at Covent Garden). The name comes from the street being bow-shaped rather than arrow-straight, a curve it still posesses although you can easily see one end from the other. Initially it was a prestigious address, hence early residents include the actual Oliver Cromwell and the sculptor Grinling Gibbons. But as theatreland grew up nearby the prostitutes and pornographers moved in, the tide only turning when one resident unintentionally invented the precursor of our modern police force. Let's work backwards.

Hotel: NoMad
By the end of the 20th century the big Victorian building halfway down the street was no longer suitable for use as a police station or a magistrates court, so the former moved out in 1992 and the latter in 2004. Perhaps inevitably the empty property was sold to a hotel chain and became a luxury boutique hideaway where the rooms start at gold taps and marble tiles and work up to chaise longues and freestanding clawfoot bathtubs. Non-guests are welcome at their bar or restaurant, but expect a side of chips to set you back £9 and your burger to come with gruyere, shallot and black truffle. The bar is called Side Hustle and is accessed through the original Police Station entrance, which must unnerve some international guests with shady backgrounds, whereas the main doors to the former Magistrates Court generally remain locked.

The dock here welcomed such varied defendants as Dr Crippen, General Pinochet, the Kray twins, Oscar Wilde and a couple of Pankhursts. The building started out in 1881 with just three magistrates, two days a week, and built up its reputation from there. There were magistrates in Bow Street before there were police until one begat the other, the instigator being Henry Fielding who moved into number 4 in 1748 and became concerned by the amount of gin-based disorder in the locality. He hired eight constables to pursue criminals in a more civil manner than the usual street-based violence, these becoming known as the Bow Street Runners, and when his brother succeeded him as magistrate the patrol was refined into London's first effective police force. The NoMad Hotel now offers gin to local alcoholics without any Met interference.

The place to discover the Covent Garden justice backstory is the Bow Street Police Museum. This is housed in the station's former lockup and was opened in conjunction with the hotel's owners to bring a bit of heritage provenance to their venture. It's not big - more a room, a corridor and eight cells - but this is reflected in the £6 admission price. It's also not full of objects, more multiple information boards and the recollections of former officers, although they did keep the original court dock and shifted it to somewhere you can stand behind. I haven't actually been inside because the museum only opens three days a week and the first of those is tomorrow, but Ian visited when it opened in 2021 and the good news is that face coverings are no longer required.

House: Royal Opera House
Bow Street's true world class attraction is home to two cultural institutions, the Royal Opera and the Royal Ballet. It started out in 1732 as the Theatre Royal, then mainly a playhouse, although Handel often dropped by to give a musical performance. In 1808 a devastating fire forced a rebuild, with actors on the replacement main stage including icons like Sarah Siddons and Joseph Grimaldi. In 1856 a devastating fire forced a rebuild, this the auditorium we see today, with the ROH moniker first being applied in 1892. The 1997 rebuild thankfully wasn't instigated by fire but instead by lottery cash, and greatly expanded the facilities for ballet-adjacent activities. I've only been inside the main building once, this for a works-based motivational event, and I remember being far more impressed by the decor than the buffet.

The large iron and glass structure visible from Bow Street started out as the Floral Hall, a completely separate flower market, which makes sense when you remember what Covent Garden used to be before the tourists took over. The Opera House acquired it in 1977, and during the 90s rebuild elevated the facade above ground level to give the champagne bar a better view and to allow more circulation space underneath. Normally you can walk through to the piazza past the ticket desks, but when I turned up all the doors were locked and a lot of well-turned-out late-middle-aged visitors were pushing helplessly on the glass.

I didn't miss out on the ballet, though. A male dancer in tutu and ballet shoes suddenly emerged from beneath the columns and started to do an arabesque on the pavement accompanied by the strains of appropriate music. I initially assumed his accomplice was filming him but the device she was carrying turned out to be a mobile loudspeaker and the only video being recorded was by a surprised passer-by. If you're not fortunate enough to get a personal performance of your own then be aware that all the seats for this month's Swan Lake have sold out, but the ROH's upcoming programme includes other crowd favourites including Così Fan Tutte, Carmen, Madame Butterfly and six months of Tosca.

This is my ninth Monopoly street, and the first where I've been able to list all the businesses along both sides as succinctly as this:
West side: Greek restaurant, Italian restaurant, Italian restaurant, opera house
East side: (former Ryman), Italian restaurant, luxury hotel, Italian restaurant, pub, pub

It's thin gruel other than the House and the hotel, unless you're a fan of pizza and pasta in which case you're spoiled for choice. Of these I've only been inside Zizzi's, this for a works-based team dinner, and I remember being wholly underwhelmed by the long wait and stiflingly poor conversation. I'd probably have been more at home in one of the pubs, the Marquess of Anglesey or the Bow Street Tavern (where doing my usual price check the fish and chips sells for £17.50). The only other significant building is the Covent Garden telephone exchange, a concrete hunk so ugly they sometimes cover it with drapes when a red carpet event takes place at the ROH opposite (although the wire mesh covering the frontage isn't a key part of this disguise, it's a solar control measure installed in 2000). Best look elsewhere, because not all the oranges are this grey.

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