diamond geezer

 Wednesday, June 26, 2024



London's Monopoly Streets


Colour group: orange
Purchase price: £200
Rent: £16
Length: 40m
Borough: Westminster
Postcode: W1

In this year-long feature my aim has been to write just over 1000 words about each of the properties on the Monopoly board. Usually there's far too much to say, these being iconic locations, but the last of the oranges throws up a completely different problem - there's far too little. Vine Street's not a main road, it's a piddly dead end backwater. It's only famous retrospectively for a building which no longer exists. It has no shops or hostelries nor anywhere you can actually visit. But most awkwardly it's only 40 metres long, indeed I walked it end to end in less than 30 seconds, so padding this out to the requisite length is going to be a challenge. Wish me luck.

This is Vine Street, all of it.

It's very central, up close to Piccadilly Circus in the tapering wedge of real estate between the eastern ends of Regent Street and Piccadilly. But you won't see it from either, only if you attempt to duck through their Portland facades or filter off along one of two dark alleyways in an attempt to cut the corner. Neighbouring Swallow Street is much more interesting with its premier seafood restaurants, exclusive nightclubs and alfresco dining, but that's not the property on the board. Likewise Air Street is a much more noteworthy connector with its elegant arches, archaic outfitters and gastrodining, but that's not on the Monopoly board either. Vine Street it is, alas.

It wasn't always this runty, it used to be rather longer and pointed a completely different way. Vine Street's origins are in the 1680s, a narrow doglegged street whose main tenants were a brewery on one side and a carpenter's yard on the other. Originally it was called Little Swallow Street but by the mid 18th century it had been renamed after a pub on the corner called The Vine. The architectural whirlwind which severed it was the whim of the Prince Regent around 200 years ago to create a sweeping thoroughfare linking Oxford Street to Piccadilly, designed on a grand scale by the great John Nash. Here's precisely where the heart of the original Vine Street used to be, on the bend in the fanciest part of Regent Street, the Quadrant.

The northern end became a brief stump called Great Vine Street, since lost, and the southern end morphed into a hooked passageway leading to a stubby rump that somehow made it onto the Monopoly board. The chief reason for this is the emergence of Vine Street police station, a central hub which grew from a couple of basement cells in 1786 to a Metropolitan Police District presence in 1829 to reputedly the busiest police station anywhere in the world. At the end of the 19th century it's where the Marquess of Queensbury was charged with libel against Oscar Wilde, an act which didn't end happily, and in 1935 would have been an obvious 'law and order' choice to pick when Victor and Marjory were sorting out the oranges.

The police station closed in 1940 when main operations moved to Savile Row, at which point the street was renamed Piccadilly Place. It reopened in 1971 due to a shortage of space elsewhere, at which point Westminster council agreed to re-rename the street Vine Street, a title it's kept even though the building closed for good in 1995. And what is that police station today? An office block, of course, which at ground level forms the Swallow Street Recycling Hub. It's where over 50 local shops and businesses send their dry mixed recyclables, indeed it arrives in unmarked white electric vans, one of whose drivers reversed incredulously past me while I was attempting to take a photo of the street. It has green bins and a great big pulping machine, also green, and I wouldn't normally relate this level of low key detail but it is what the planet's former premier law enforcement location has become so I feel it's relevant.

The office block which now spans the north side of Vine Street is called 1 Vine Street, this the kind of branding developers love despite the fact Vine Street no longer has a 2, 3, 4 or any other addressable property. Tenants behind the retained facade include Lloyds Bank's Build-to-Let arm, investment bankers, solicitors and something Dutch that monetises chemicals, whose employees all file in past an artwork in the atrium called Vitas vinifera L by Alison Turnbull. Meanwhile the 1950s office block whose backside faces the south side of Vine Street, Airwork House, is in the process of undergoing total demolition. Not only will the replacement office block be two storeys taller, it'll also "offer retail on all of its elevations" which should mean you'll finally be able to buy something on Vine Street, even if it is only a overpriced frothy coffee.

Overpriced frothy coffees are currently available along both of the narrow alleyways feeding into Vine Street, that's Piccadilly Place and Man in Moon Passage, the two cafes intriguingly both operated by faux Italian chain Caffe Concerto. Man in Moon Passage is a brilliant name for an alleyway and comes originally from a pub called the Man in the Moon at the southern end, long vanished. Ian Visits has the full MiMP backstory here, the key relevant facts being that a) the passage follows the original northward alignment of Vine Street b) the pub was at number 13. As the closest hostelry to a police station it would have done a roaring trade, and its absence makes attempting a Monopoly themed pub crawl just that little bit less fulfilling.

Which brings me to the enormous building which frames the eastern end of Vine Street, the Piccadilly Hotel. It looks fabulously neo-Baroque from Piccadilly, at least when not half-obscured by scaffolding, and was erected in 1908 amazingly in eighteen months flat. It covers the footprint of St James's Hall, a stack of capacious auditoriums decorated in the Florentine style, which for most of the second half of the 19th century was London's pre-eminent concert venue. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Henry Wood and Charles Dickens all performed here. The subsequent hotel has gone through multiple changes of ownership including Welsh (1920s), Scottish (1960s), French (1980s), English (1990s), Dutch/Singaporean (2010s) and most recently Israeli (2020s), such is the endless capitalist cascade of luxury hospitality assets. The latest lot have rebranded it The Dilly and you are not its target audience.

Alas every hotel has its backside and that's what faces Vine Street, a wall of undistinguished brick emblazoned with pipes, vents and extractor fans. This is the not the view you hope you'll get from your window when allocated a room on an upper floor. But what's most intriguing if you stand here long enough is the endless succession of staff, most of whom look like they work in the kitchens, emerging through the swing doors for a fag break. Out comes a pot-washer, meat-carver or jus-squirter, depending, who then lingers in sullen peace for a few minutes before stubbing out their cigarette on the metal provided and returning to the fray. This end of the street has been carefully divided into smoking and non-smoking zones, I suspect according to what goes on behind the windows.

Perhaps the most intriguing sign is the one which says "This is not the delivery entrance for Hawksmoor. It's behind you up the ramp on the right of Man in Moon Passage". And indeed there it is, a grubby white door with keypad, CCTV and intercom, through which all the restaurant's seafood, chateaubriand and Old Spot belly ribs are duly shoved. I watched a wine delivery taking place, a brimming trolley of vintage fizz which proved merely the advance guard from a white van packed with prestige bottles destined to be uncorked in front of jolly punters upstairs in a lounge overlooking Air Street. Poor old Vine Street is merely for lowly staff, for ad hoc waste recycling, for the reversing of delivery vehicles and for an endless cycle of demolition and rebirth, no longer a renowned destination where crimes are solved but a glum back passage living off its past.

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