diamond geezer

 Wednesday, June 12, 2024



London's Monopoly Streets


Colour group: orange
Purchase price: £180
Rent: £14
Length: 300m
Borough: Westminster
Postcode: W1

The Monopoly board contains two streets that don't exist* and this is the first - it should be Great Marlborough Street. To understand why, remember that the orange set of properties were originally all places related to law and order, specifically Magistrates Courts and Police Stations. The key building here is Marlborough Street Magistrates Court, a building which was never officially Great so it's easy to see why Victor and Marjory from Leeds might have selected the shortened version by mistake. You probably won't be surprised when you discover what that court is now. You may also go "aaah" when you hear what the two biggest shops are and "oooh" when I mention the world famous theatre.

* Yes, I know an actual Marlborough Street exists elsewhere in London, in South Kensington, but it's an insignificant dogleg with just the one blue plaque and not in any way what Victor and Marjory meant.

You know where Great Marlborough Street is even if the name hasn't stuck. It's one-street-back from Oxford Street, thrusting into Soho. It bears off Regent Street near the first set of traffic lights. And it's the street where Carnaby Street begins, at the skew end before the clothes shops begin in earnest. Development began on open land in 1704, first the sewers, then the fine houses, originally not quite as far as Regent Street because Prince George hadn't commissioned that yet. The name of the street was inspired by the biggest event in 1704, the Battle of Blenheim, a thumping victory over the French under the command of the Duke of Marlborough. Let's start in the middle. Sorry about the big green lorry.

21 Great Marlborough Street was first used as a public office for a Justice of the Peace in 1792, prior to which it had been a private house occupied by dukes and diplomats. In 1856 the facility expanded into number 20 nextdoor, and when number 19 was additionally purchased in 1912 this allowed for a complete rebuild into the courthouse building we see today. The front's all Portland stone and the architectural style is Restrained Free Classicism, according to its listing. The most famous 19th century trial was probably that of Oscar Wilde, this being where he launched his ill-judged case against the Marquess of Queensbury, while later defendants included Christine Keeler, John Lennon, Mick Jagger, Johnny Rotten and Bob Monkhouse. Marlborough Street Magistrates Court finally closed in 1998 and was swiftly transformed into...

Hotel: Courthouse Hotel
Well of course it was.

A few of the suites in the former judges' quarters contain original Robert Adams fireplaces, while three of the prison cells now conceal private tables in the hotel bar. Meanwhile the old Number One court has been transformed into a restaurant called Silk where the bench, the stand and the dock remain intact, the spectre of past sentencing thus hanging over diners while they wait for their tasting menu to arrive. You don't get much sense of this from the front, only some fake ivy and an enticement to come inside for afternoon tea, although there is a lovely old brass plaque by the door reminding visitors that Court opens at 9.45am.

Nextdoor-but-one is perhaps Britain's premier theatre, the London Palladium.

The main entrance is around the corner on Argyll Street, and what's round the back are the legendary Stage Door and some of the unmarked exits audiences find themselves ejected through at the end of a performance. I turned up while scenery for the next production was being delivered (hence the big green lorry), so got to dodge numerous black t-shirted stagehands manoeuvring panels and scaffolding into the wings. This also meant the doors of the Wall of Fame had been flung open, this a metalwork mosaic of the faces of some of the greatest stars to tread the boards here.

It was designed by Lee Simmons in 2018 with the backing of the Lloyds Webbers and features the cheery grins of entertainment stalwarts like Ken Dodd, Norman Wisdom and Sammy Davis Jr. The only nod to the last 30 years is Julian Clary, so often a Palladium panto dame, and it says a lot about postwar showbusiness that only 6 of the 31 panels depict women.

The street's most photogenic building is Liberty, the Mock Tudor department store.

It opened here in 1924 while the previous emporium on Regent Street was being renovated, but swiftly outshone it. Its timbers come from two old battleships, HMS Impregnable and HMS Hindustan, with their decks duly transformed into four levels of flooring. Up top are faux barleysugar chimneys and an iron & glass roof, while the interior is intermittently interspersed by three surprisingly large lightwells. Shopping here is like walking round inside an Elizabethan mansion - far cosier than Selfridges and considerably more tasteful than Harrods.

It's also a playground for brand-friendly tourists and sturdy Home Counties types who come to pick their wardrobes from the sparse racks of designer labels. They plod carefully up the wooden staircases to check out homewares and haberdashery, or slip into the wood-fronted lifts to peruse the iconic soft furnishing selections on the 4th floor. The big attraction at present is a sponsored Bridgerton experience, your chance to admire wigs from the series, snap a photo while sat in a horseless carriage and ideally go away inspired by matching wallpapers and fabrics. Liberty also has a florist in the lobby (where it's Peony month) and a choice of two spas - one for your feet and one for your pets. And every quarter hour the mechanical clock over Kingly Street chimes loudly, its wise advice No Minute Ever Comes Back Again.

If your budget's more middle class then the other big store on the street is M&S's West End flagship. The main entrance is on Oxford Street but you can always enter via what feels like the staff entrance round the back, passing through swing doors with curved metal pushplates which took me right back to the 1980s. Head down for the expansive Food Hall, head up for Autograph and Per Una. The store was built on the site of the Pantheon, a place of entertainment opened to high acclaim in 1772 (and burnt to the ground 20 years later), indeed it still says The Pantheon in illuminated green letters above the Art Deco facade. Rest assured this isn't the M&S destined for demolition, that's up the Marble Arch end.

Moving down the retail ladder somewhat, but still famous, is the Schott music shop at number 48. The German publisher first landed in London in 1835, moving to Great Marlborough Street in 1908 in a flurry of sheet music. Their oeuvre has broadened somewhat since, with their shop window showcasing Joan Baez and Taylor Swift as well as Schubert, also a boxed tin whistle and an offer to hire one of their practice rooms from £12 an hour. Opposite is the HQ of Sony Interactive Entertainment UK, their lobby illuminated by the four neon Playstation roundels which once spent 48 hours outside Oxford Circus station. Meanwhile one of the last 18th century buildings on the street is the Coach And Horses pub on the corner of Poland Street, although best not if its beers are as bogstandard as its menu.

Other businesses here include a number of coffee shops, from lowly Costa to a clothes boutique with a few smart tables. For finer food Bocconcino does Italian, Sucre does high end and Wagamama does what Wagamama does. One of the most traditional businesses is the news kiosk between Spaghetti House and the Palladium where Viz, Heat and OK are still on sale alongside the latest Vogue, Vanity Fair and Conde Nast. While we're on throwbacks, don't forget the men's and women's conveniences at the top of Carnaby Street which are always there if you're caught short while wandering through the West End. And one final fascinating fact, Marlboro cigarettes are so named because they were first manufactured at the Philip Morris tobacco factory here in the 1870s. Marlborough Street may not be Great on the board, but it has its great moments.

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