diamond geezer

 Wednesday, July 10, 2024



London's Monopoly Streets


Colour group: red
Purchase price: £220
Rent: £18
Length: 1200m
Borough: Westminster
Postcode: WC2

And so to the reds, a linear trio connecting the West End to the City. For this first property I have the opposite problem to the last of the oranges. Vine Street was ridiculously short and dull whereas this is long, historic and so packed with points of interest I could easily blog about it for an entire week. I am therefore going to have to omit a lot of stuff so please don't chirp up and tell me "You forgot to mention..." because in fact there just wasn't room.

Let's all go down the Strand...

...and let's start with the name. It references the street's location along the outside of a bend in the Thames (from the Old English word 'strond' meaning the edge of a river). Officially it's Strand, not The Strand, as its street signs make clear. That said not all the businesses along the street are in full agreement. Tesco is 100% convinced it's The Strand, using the name twice on its frontage, whereas the street's other supermarket has plumped for Welcome to Strand's Co-op instead. The most confused business is Pizza Express which gives the address of one of its restaurants as 147 Strand and the other as 450 The Strand, as if hedging its bets.

n.b. In what follows I'm going to follow established practice, which is that "when writing about this street you say the Strand (note lower case article), but when using its name formally, as in an address, you drop the article". That's an administrator on Wikipedia speaking, where an exasperating decade of tedious grammatical arguments has recently been shunted off into an archive in an attempt to get the angriest pedants to calm down.

The Strand has long been an important street, as you'd expect when one end is at Charing Cross and the other at Temple Bar, a ceremonial entrance to the City. For many centuries the south side of the street was lined by very large houses, even palaces, where London's wealthiest enjoyed a premium location with their own river gates and landings backing directly on the Thames. If you were playing Monopoly 500 years ago your four houses on the Strand might have been Essex House, Arundel House, York House and Durham House, each home to either an earl or an archbishop. However all of these grand homes were sequentially demolished as the wealthy found nicer places to live and a more commercial district emerged instead. Somerset House is one of the last mansions standing, and even this is a 1770s replacement for what was originally a Tudor courtier's Renaissance home.

If you think the Strand's busy today, imagine how much worse it was before the Victoria Embankment siphoned off the worst of the traffic. A lot of what now rumbles up and down is taxis and a lot of the rest is buses, feeding off Trafalgar Square and inching along the street beneath the London Heritage Quarter banners. I like how this end of the Strand has a convenient cobbled central reservation, ideal for nipping halfway across, although few pedestrians choose to use it instead waiting patiently for a green man. No that's not the original Eleanor Cross outside Charing Cross station. No there isn't a cashpoint outside Coutts Bank. Yes there are depressingly high numbers of homeless people sleeping in the street, at least if you turn up early enough in the morning.

A lot of those thronging the pavements are tourists, this being but a short walk from multiple places on their itinerary, so they're well catered for in terms of brash souvenir shops and places to eat. The best known restaurant hereabouts is probably Simpsons-in-the-Strand which started out in 1828 as a chess club (although it's currently closed for a refresh) and the best known pub must be Edwardian quirkfest The Coal Hole (although its facade is currently behind a heck of a lot of scaffolding). As for the most famous shop that's got to be Stanley Gibbons, the esteemed stamp emporium, which has occupied three different addresses on the Strand since 1891. This is also very much Theatreland, as the red-branded streetsigns suggest, the current choices being Back to the Future at the Adelphi, Six at the Vaudeville and Mean Girls at the Savoy.

The Savoy was a theatre before it was a hotel and many other things before that. It started out as the Savoy Palace in the 13th century, became the most magnificent nobleman's house in London, was burnt down by marauding peasants, became a hospital for the poor, decayed inexorably and was substantially demolished to make way for the approach to Waterloo Bridge. After another fire only the Tudor chapel remained, and Richard D'Oyly Carte then stepped in to open a theatre exclusively for Gilbert and Sullivan operas. When this faltered economically he built a hotel alongside in an attempt to attract a wealthier audience and this pivot to hospitality proved enormously successful. Today you can spaff £1000 a night on cocktails, bathrobes and a sense of superiority, enjoying the rarity of driving on the right-hand side of the road as your taxi deposits you out front, or sneak across the street to the Strand Palace which is the slightly less exclusive Monopoly choice.

The eastern half of the Strand has a very different feel - much more open, less busy and with more nods to history. It's also been radically transformed of late with through traffic diverted off round Aldwych allowing for 300m of imaginative pedestrianisation. This space is already much-loved, not least by students spilling out of King's College who can now loiter in the street with friends or protest for Palestine without being knocked down by a passing bus. Tucked into the corner of the university is an entrance to one of the most famous ghost stations on the tube network, seemingly called Strand, although this was of course only its name between 1907 and 1915 when it was renamed Aldwych. I won't go into the full Strand/Charing Cross renaming malarkey because I first did that over 20 years ago and I assume everyone's over-familiar by now, but I will say TfL now charge £45 for an Aldwych visit.

Two of the oldest buildings on the Strand can be found here in the middle of the road, essentially on traffic islands, hence the pair are sometimes referred to as the Island Churches. St Mary le Strand is one of the twelve Queen Anne Churches built after the Great Fire to support a rapidly increasing population. It's not in a good state at the moment with an exclusion zone around the perimeter in case of falling masonry, a risk which ought to be taken seriously given that a stone urn fell and killed a passer-by in 1802. St Clement Danes is much older, reputedly founded in the 9th century, although the current building is a Wren concoction topped by a subsequent steeple. It may or may not be the church referenced in the nursery rhyme Oranges and Lemons but it absolutely is the Central Church of the Royal Air Force which explains the cluster of statues to bombdroppers and other military paraphernalia out front.

The Strand continues a tad further, past a statue of Samuel Johnson, past a well 191 feet deep, past a magnificent four-headed lampstand and past a sadly-closed set of underground public conveniences. Twinings have had a tea shop here since 1717, selling dry leaves rather than hot cups, its sparse shelves leading to a very small 'museum' at the back. The really big building here belongs to the Royal Courts of Justice, a Gothic landmark resembling a cross between a cathedral and a German castle, which has been despatching offenders to their fate since 1882. The Strand terminates at the precise point where the borough of Westminster morphs into the City, once marked by Temple Bar and now by a less obstructive dragon-topped column in the middle of the road. Beyond here it's all Fleet Street... but that's the next property on the Monopoly board so we'll be back soon enough to pick up where we left off.

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