It’s in the can… A quirky look at the history of London’s public toilets

Be you a tourist, a local, or city worker, there is nothing worse than being caught short and having to make the dash for the nearest  –  er lavatory.  It’s a handy thing in London to know where they’re located and and perhaps, if you’re a little fussy, which ones to are worth avoiding.

But let’s all be thankful for the humble public toilet in all is grotesque forms, for they weren’t always there.  Have you ever wondered who came up with the idea?  In fact London’s first official public toilet only made it’s debut 150 years ago.

Spend a Penny.  

In 1851 London hosted another monumental  event, the Great Exhibition.  Fortunately they had someone savvy on the organising team who foresore that of the millions of people descending on the capital to see the show one or two of them might need, at some point, to use the bathroom – and so the nation’s first festival style ‘porta-loos’ were introduced, with a small charge for the ‘convience’ at (you guessed it) 1p… hence the term… ‘spend a penny’.

It proved a huge success (stunning that no-one saw the niche in the market before that) and a huge money maker with a wapping great profit of  £1790 (a figure that the Alan Sugar of the day would be proud of!).

The following year a couple of clevercloggs finally saw the niche and put forward that a permanent public convenience in the capital might be a good idea.  And so from the makers of that other great national icon Nelson’s Column (slightly random), came Britain’s first official public loo.  The first of these permanent public toilets appeared in in Fleet Street (no longer there to see  unfortunately?!?). At first it was only the Gents that were graced with such privileges, based on the theory that the ladies, wouldn’t need any for they stayed at home all day taking care of the household – I’m sure Jane Austin would have something to say about that.  And maybe she did for a few months later much to the ladies delight there followed the grand opening of London’s first public Ladies’ Room,  few blocks away on Bedford Street, just off The Strand.

It wasn’t all about making money however, there was a hope the new London landmarks would improve sanitary conditions in the city, ‘somewhere for the homeless to relieve themselves’ as well as the general public.

It was a success as ‘Victorian public conveniences/ water closets’ popped up all over the capital.  You can still see some of them today (some are even in use but very much renovated).  They are easy to spot, they’re usually the ones with the glamorous iron-work railing outside, with stairs leading down.  Be warned though they bare a close resemblance to some Underground/subway entrances (well maybe if you’re a little tipsy).

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Public Loo Vs Subway  

Sadly though, the novelty (and in all honesty the grafefulness for the convenience)  wore off.  It didn’t take long for public toilets to become the bane of London life, a private public place for all sorts of misdemeanours  (yes George Michael wasn’t the first) and general bad hygiene.

It was only two years after the launch that the papers were complaining “even the public urinals which were put up some years ago, have never yet had water laid on for cleansing them. The result is that they have become a positive nusciance to passers by.”

Where to go when you need to go?  

Today their tarnished reputation continues, and many have been closed down with funding cuts and just general bad feeling.  However, unlike 150 years ago, today you have many more options for toilets.  My advice to any tourist  is the obvious, try out the cafés, restaurants, and pubs if you get caught short.  If you’re not a customer different establishments have different views on you walking in just to use the bathroom. It’s trial and error to find out, or try to creep in without being seen.  The best bets if you’re up the west end are the department stores or where there is any food being served, usually the council laws dictate that where there is food served there has to be a customer toilet, so that’s a good guide to finding somewhere.

If you want a bit of luxuy it’s worth checking out the big name department stores or restaurants. Harrod’s is famous for it’s ‘luxury washrooms’ – although from my research ‘Luxury’ is a matter of opinion; but it is slightly cheaper than 10 years ago when they were charging £1 for the privilege.

If you want a loo with a view, I highly recommend a visit to Paramount Bar in the heart of London situated on the 32nd floor of the famous Centrepoint building. It will cost you slightly more than a penny (for the drinks obviously not the toilets) and you have to book in advance (for the drinks obviously not the toilets) but a visit to the ladies will present you with the most stunning skyline view over london.

For some in the capital the need to relieve has become an opportunity for Art.  A great example of this is the pod loos at Sketch Resturant. They are literally giant eggs… I’m quite sure the original Alien movie may have been modelled on a visit to these. I highly recommend you google this one, you have to see it to believe it.

In 2004 ‘Don’t miss a Sec’ appeared outside Tate Britain in Pimlico, a pretty mirrored box, as you walk past you could check your hair, put your lippy on…

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However, this was no ordinary mirrored box this was a public-art-toilet by artist Monica Bonvicini.  You could sit on the loo and watch the world sail by, with those outside being none the wiser, ekk.  Would you use this toilet?

What became of them

So many of the orignials have long since gone, but you can still see/visit many of the Victorian public toilets, a few have even been resurrected.   A great example is the one at St Christopher’s Place, in the centre of the square beautifully decorated with pretty hanging baskets, (so as not to put you off your food).

Get up close and personal and  a great cuppa  

But if you want to get up close and personal with some real Victorian Loo’s you can’t get closer than The Attendant, Beautifully restored and transformed into a trendy, quirky coffee shop in Marylebone.(5 mins from Oxford Circus).  They still have the original Urinals, and flushes which you can sit at while you sip your cuppa (don’t be put off, its a delightful experience, and delightfully clean).  They also make a quality cup of coffee.

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So next time you’re caught short, be grateful for the conveniences around you, be grateful you’re not walking the streets 150 years ago.  Oh and remember you might need more than a penny now too.

Read my review of The Attendant at  Love Coffee (London) on Facebook or find them at www.the-attendant.com/

If you liked that read this:

London’s lost landmarks

The Attendant

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Gems of Portobello Road

The world famous Portobello Road Market, or Notting Hill Markets makes a great morning out, but what is there to do there? You’ll find so much at the markets and I’ve put together my top things to look out for on Portobello Road.

Portobello Road Market

 

Normally I’m keen to avoid tourist hotspots and find the hidden and secret, so I surprised even myself with a trip to Portobello Road Market recently and am surprising myself even more by posting a blog on it.

But truth be told, it’s a hit with the tourists because it’s a hit! There is something very quaint about the whole area, the colourful houses, the history the movie fame, as well as the quirky pubs, and street corner musicians sharing their live talent. And Portobello Road contains many hidden gems.

So here are my top hidden gems of Portobello road market.

My first top secret London tip is how to get there;  most people visit via Notting Hill Gate (On the Central Line). But it is also easily accessed by Ladbroke Grove station (Hammersmith & City Line) and it’s just a short 5 minute walk away (and happily crowdless).

Music Arts & Antiques

Not so much a gem you can take a picture of, but interesting facts to know. The market has been going over 100 years. It originally started life as a few stalls on Portobello lane. In the 1860s many of the houses were built and the market grew in size, even then marketers started to sell bric-a-brac, fashion and the food stalls popped up. It was also around this time that street performers were first seen on the markets. Today the market is world famous, not only for its stalls but for its music and arts, with  quality up and coming musicians on every corner, and its 100 year old Electric cinema (a great place to catch a movie complete with armchair viewing). The Electric even hosts its own film festival every August.

A bite to eat: 
The Ladbroke Grove end is mainly for food; fruit, veg etc. And it’s here you will find a number of great artisan cafes and food stalls; check out the German food van for a traditional currywurst (my personal favourite). For a stylish coffee check out Talkhouse Coffee at No 275 a great stop off for quality coffee and breakfast. Or how about lunch at the quirky (real) Sicilian Cafe Arancina – at the Notting Hill end.  This family owned place makes a great real pizza and the cafe comes complete with a very cool, bright orange Italiano car in the window.

That blue door

The famous blue door of Portobello found its fame in the movie Notting Hill – you know the one where Rhys Ifans  answers the door in his undies to the awaiting paparazzi. Today is no different; spend a moment or two by 280 Westbourne Park Road (corner of Portobello Road) and you’ll see the tourist paparazzi snapping away within minutes.  It’s the treasure of many a tourist’s visit. Interestingly enough the blue door house was home to Notting Hill’s writer/director Richard Curtis who lived here at the time. He is also the writer of many many great British comedies including Blackadder, Mr Bean, Bridget Jones.. the list is endless.

The other blue door

At the other end of Portobello Road (the Notting Hill end) is another more unassuming blue door, and former home to another great British writer, one Eric Arthur Blair, better known to the world as Mr George Orwell. The famous former policeman spent a year in here whilst exploring London life. It was during this time that he would dress as a tramp and wander in the east London slums, researching life what life was like for the London underclasses. After a year here, he moved to Paris and there completed his famous account of this London experience in Down & Out in Paris and London.

 

Orwell may have been surprised to learn that his plush London home itself became a slum after his death. In the 50s Portobello Road and the Notting Hill area fell so far as to be considered one of the most deprived areas in London.  It was also the scene of serious race riots in both the 50s & 70s . Today the area is very much transformed, and is one of the most expensive and exclusive areas of London. Orwell’s former home itself recently went on the market for a mere £2750,000.

Portobello Gold

They say you find gold at the end of the rainbow, well there is gold at the end of Portobello Road (well more in the middle). This little pub is very easy (very easy) to miss in the hustle and bustle of the market, so much that even the door is hard to find behind the crowd of market stalls. But once inside you find an oasis of calm. The upper level at the back looks like a plush tropical conservatory surrounded by huge summery palms (some over 20 years old!). If this isn’t quaint enough for you, check out their rooftop terrace, with stunning views over Kensington. You will also find cosy little tables on set on different levels.  It’s very quaint, and a perfect little gem to escape shopping madness.  I highly recommend you find this secret hidden gem.

Portabello Road Market is open Monday to Saturday 9am – 6pm (until 1pm on Wednesday)

It can be reached by Ladbroke Grove Station or Notting Hill Gate

 

If you liked that read this:

Top 5 Markets of London

The Other Mr Selfridge

The Oscars of London

We all love the glitz & glamour, but which Oscar nominees, and winners were filmed here in London.  Check out my top nominees and their revealing London locations.

 

Elizabeth The Golden Age 2007

Won Best Costume

Nominated for Best Actress (Cate Blanchet)

Winner Most Historic London Location 2013

Elizabeth the Golden Age filmed at Greenwich Royal Navy College (not the only Oscar winner to do so – scenes of the Iron Lady were also filmed here). A stunning location and one of my favorite days out in London. The real Queen Elizabeth was actually born here, in the original Greenwich Palace in 1533. Built in the 1400s this beautiful river side palace housed royalty, most notably the famous wife killing King Henry VIII. It was sadly demolished in the 1700s and replaced by the equally stunning royal naval college. It is said that an Oak Tree in the grounds is the very oak tree that the young Henry and Elizabeth played in as children.

Closer 2004

Nominated for Best Actor in a supporting role (Clive Owen)

Nominated for Best Actress in a supporting role (Natalie Portman)

Winner Most quirky London Location 2013

In 2004 a few British greats turned up on the nominee list but Closer was a standout. The opening is set in Postman’s Park, not far from St Paul’s. The park contains a memorial to people who died in heroic circumstances, and contains plaques and their fascinating stories. These include that of Mary Rogers who died when the ship she worked on sank in 1899, she gave up her life jacket for another passenger. Then there is 60 year old signal man William Goodrum who died (1880) whilst saving a colleague from being hit by an on-coming train. But perhaps the most moving is 11 year old Solomon Galaman who saved his little brother from being run over (1901). The inscription includes his sad dying quote “Mother I saved him, but I could not save myself.”

Alfie 1966

Nominated for Best Actor (Michael Caine)

Nominated for Best Supporting Actress (Vivien Merchant)

Nominated for Best Original Song (Alfie – Bert Bacharach)

Winner Best view in London 2013

Turn back to 1966 and another classic London film was nominated for Michael Caine’s leading role in Alfie. For his final scene they chose one of the best viewing spots along the Thames, Waterloo Bridge (named unsurprisingly after the Battle of Waterloo). It was built in the 40s and was the only bridge along the central part of the Thames to be damaged by war time bombing. It’s situated on a bend in the river so is a great little spot to snap west at the houses or parliament and London Eye, and north up to St Paul’s and the Shard. It also features in that other great British classic Bridget Jones she crosses (commutes rather) across this bridge with a huge smile on her face, after a night with Daniel Cleveland!

The King’s Speech 2010

Won Best Picture

Won Best Actor in a Leading Role (Colin Firth)

Won Best Screen Play

Won Best Direction (Tom Hooper)

Winner Best Summer Spot 2013

(Also nominated for Best Actor in a supporting Role (Geoffrey Rush), Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Helena Bonham Carter) Best Art Direction, Cinematography, Costume Design, Film Editing, Music, Sound Mixing – I was just far to lazy to type all those out individually)

 

 Not long until the summer, I promise, and when it arrives you will find me chilling out in the beautiful Regents Park for most of it. But right now it looks exactly like its Oscar nominated scene in The Kings speech. As Bertie and Lionel stroll through the park on a misty chilly morning. Quite accurately the park is just a stones throw from Lionel’s real life office on Harley Street. Today (as then) Harley Street is famous for it’s elite doctors, and medical practices, and still attends to the needs of the Royals. Lionel has long left (obviously) but his practice at 146 is marked by a blue plaque. Interestingly enough the office they used for Lionel’s practice in the film is on the street directly parallel to Harley,  Portland place (number 33 to be exact).

Skyfall 2012

Nominated Best Cinamatograpy

Nominated Best Music/Original Song (Londoner Adele!)

Nominated Best Sound Editing

Winner -Most impressive London Location 2013

My final is our great hopeful for 2013… Skyfall, famously shot in London, starring our beloved underground among other greats. One of the government buildings featured is one of my favourite buildings (I know I always say that) 10 Trinity Square. It’s an impressive looking building, one of those you know has to be important. Situated just next door to the Tower of London, and Tower Bridge and opposite the river and City Hall, 10 Trinity Square was opened by Prime Minister Lloyd George in the 20s. Its an impressive building and is part of the Tower of London’s World Heritage site. It was originally home to the Port of London Authority, and entertained UN general assembly in 1946. Today it houses an insurance company with plans to turn part of it into a hotel – it is equally as impressive inside as on the outside. Both the inside and out was used for scenes in the movie.

For a quick overview of movie London locations check out this cool Underground Map produced by TFL in 2010.

You can also find out about a few other film locations in my other blogs

London’s Open House Weekend 2012

Open House Weekend, a history geek’s dream & if you happen to be visiting London that weekend you’ve hit a bargain.

Being able to get inside some of London’s most loved buildings that normally we only can only gaze at from the outside, such as the Gherkin, St Pancras Hotel Lloyds of London, & the Guildhall (to name a few) as well as a whole host of smaller buildings, is a dream. It’s also a fascinating opportunity to see the inner workings of some of London’s greatest systems and landmarks… as I discovered.

So here’s a little review of my Open House Weekend 2012 experiences…

Old, new and a few surprises.

Old

Despite my intense OHW preparations, I missed a few minor details, like when I forced my sister out of bed at an unearthly hour on a Saturday morning to go and see a building that wasn’t even open until the Sunday (whoops). I also failed to read the description of the Roman Baths in too much depth, so my ‘Old’ became my disappointment. I was surprised and curious to  see some Roman baths listed in an area not particularly famous for its Roman remains. So  I was quite eager to see this one. But the Roman Bath hidden underneath a Kings College building just off the Strand turned out instead to be a ‘Tudor Bath’, with a quirky list of famous visitors  including the Dutch Queen and Charles Dickens (well David Copperfield, but I’m going to assume Mr Dickens visited for inspiration). There wasn’t a great deal else to see there admittedly,  but what stood out for me was the beautiful original Dutch tiling in the entrance hall, which I’m sure would have be very much to the Queen’s taste.

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I’ve recently been reading a lot about Mr John Nash and his contribution to shaping the London we know and love today. So I was quite keen to get to see inside Carlton Terrace down by Pall Mall. It’s another of those easily missed stunning London buildings (as is Senate House as you will discover if you read to the end 😉 Overlooking St James’s Park and the Mall its most impressive side (the beautiful columned frontage) is hidden well by the trees.  Carlton House (6-9)

Built by Nash as the end of his very long ‘New Street’ (currently Great Portland Street/Regents Street) it was built  for the Prince Regent to rent out to the very best of society, the elite of England.   These days its still owned by the Crown, and  houses among others The Royal Society.

Nash also designed the interior, so I was excited to see this as well. As with pretty much every building in London, the insides have been updated a great deal to meet 20th century tastes and technological criteria  this one still contains some quirky features of it’s original design  as well as that of its more recent inhabitants. 

You get the gist of what it would be like to be an elite tenant from the impressive lay out. There is a nice view of the park (great spot to watch the Olympics, looking out on to Horse Guards Parade – well it would if not for those pesky trees the swamping the view). 

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It has an spectacular library, done in a Italian renaissance style, by a previous Argentinean millionaire tenant, as well  as a stunning stairwell with a glamorous gold and black Tudor style ceiling.

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There’ is not much of Nash’s handiwork left on display, but I was lucky enough to be taken into a ‘staff only’ area on the tour, which was pure unadulterated Nash. It was also another great display of what it would be like to live there, (see the pictures).The Royal Society moved in in 1967 (having previously been housed in both the amazing Somerset house and Burlington House). They bought with them an impressive collection of portrait paintings 
including a young Einstein (his hair was still messy even then) and some quirky artifacts including Isaac Newton’s death mask!

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Another highlight of this visit was a painting over the grand staircase. During the year they moved into Carlton Terrace they had their first Australian President. A relative of Mr Florey gifted them with this impressive painting (about two stories high) which takes pride of place over the staircase. It’s size is impressive but also its content. It depicts the beautiful Burlington House overlooking a stunning London Skyline under (& I love this) an ‘Australian night sky’. Those are three of my favourite things 🙂 

 

London Skyline Painting 

Unfortunately my bag (albeit big) was not quite big enough to smuggle the picture out.

I would recommend a visit to Royal Society, they are open to the public during the week and here’s a shhhtopsecretlondon secret – the impressive library (overlooking St James’ Park) is open to the public during the week … study in style!

Surprise

Next on our tour was a building I’ve always loved from the outside, in fact if you’ve ever watched the news you’ve seen it. The Royal Courts of Justice on the Strand, the national court of appeal. Those live news feeds, however, never show it in all it’s glory.  

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This beautiful Victorian Gothic building was built by Mr Edmund Street better known for his many Gothic churches across England. However stunning this is on the outside its also particularly stunning inside, but what I found more interesting were all the little surprises in store for Open House visitors

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When the prison guard asked me if I wanted to be locked in I thought he was joking, until I heard the cell door across the way slam shut. Yes, on this little tour you could run riot through every nook and cranny of the justice system, from being locked in the cells, to trying out the prison van (yes we’ve all seen the Serco vans wooshing by) or trying out the riot gear. 

We also got inside the courts. I’ve never considered the courts before, they are strictly ‘no photo’ zones, and on TV we only ever see the ‘artist impressions’ which focus more on the criminal than the room itself.   But the many court rooms are beautiful pieces or Victorian design, and sort of cosy; lots of wood paneling  book shelves of ancient laws (which the presenter told us they still refer to on a daily basis).  The 10 year old judge on this particular day (dressed in the red judges robe, and wig) seemed to approve of the humourous presentation the retired employee gave us.   Here in the courts they had numerous presentations of what actually went on in the courts. I loved that those running and helping out for the weekend were the ones that actually worked there day in day out. It was a fascinating morning.

Art Deco & Batman

Going forward a few years into the 1930s, was a visit to one of my most favourite buildings in London, one of the unknown landmarks of London, Senate House. I love this building, it’s tall, imposing and very impressive, in its hey day it was the tallest building in London and would have stood out across the London Skyline in the same way the Shard does today. Yet strangely today it’s quite forgotten and lost, most people I know have never even heard about it.

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Built for, and still belonging to, the University of London, this building was part of a grand plan to consume Bloomsbury (had it been completed it would have been a mighty impressive, expansive building stretching from the British Museum all the way to Euston Road (massive). The plans represented a world wide prestigious seat of learning, as well providing a hub of London life, grand plans in deed. However, the grand plans proved grandly expensive and in the end only a small section was built.  Fortunately for us it the most impressive section, that of the main Senate Tower.

I’ve always been impressed and in awe of this building (I used to work opposite and walked past it every day) but what is inside in equally impressive as its imposing art deco outside. In fact you might of seen it in one of its many Hollywood appearances, most recently Batman, Dark Knight Rises, which is not surprising as this one would look very at home in Gotham.

 

Art Deco Senate House

As you walk in you’re greeted with a grand marble entrance hall with a equally grand staircase. Our tour took us up to the main Chancellor rooms on the first floor. What impressed me most of all though was the way the original features had been preserved so well, despite being updated for a 21st century techo world – in contrast to Carlton House.  But also the quality of the original features. No pennies were spared on the the quality of this one (perhaps that’s why they ran out of money so quickly, but also perhaps why it is preserved so well).  For example their heating system is still the original, and generators for the building were only replaced a few years ago.

This building also has an extensive library which fills the higher levels of the Tower and offer amazing views of London (which sadly we weren’t able to see on this tour).

The building has always and still operates as the administrative hub of the University of London, however during the war the government took it over and it was used as the headquarters for Ministry of Information. Journalists of the day and those involved would often camp out here for days on end. When it was hit by bombing the quality of the build proved its worth and the building was barely touched, and those inside barely noticed.  It was also during this time that a young George Orwell was inspired by Senate House in writing his famous Nineteen Eighty Four.

Perhaps my favourite story about Senate House (although my tour guide would not verify this one) was that during the blitz, Hilter had his eye on this building as his future UK head quarters and gave specific instructions to his bombers to steer clear of damaging this one. Strangely (& knowing what I know about Hitler and his design plans for Berlin) this one would have looked very at home in his grand building collection.

My advice is to wander over to Bloomsbury and take a look at this Senate House, it’s mighty impressive and sadly forgotten these days.

New

Probably the most interesting of my OHW experiences was this one, and despite having to queue in the pouring rain for over an hour curiosity got the better of me. A nose at the Cross Rail Bond Street site . A future and epic building project in the heart of busy London using some very old technology (Mr Brunel would have been quite impressed by it all). 

Living and working in central London  I go past many of the Cross Rail development sites every day, so I was fascinated to see exactly what’s going on underground while we go about our busy lives. This particular visit centered around the new Bond Street Station (for Cross rail). Currently they’ve built the shell of the two main station areas, which we got to look into. To be honest not much to see, just a big (organised) hole in the ground about 8 stories deep. But what was impressive was the technology of building this big hole, not entirely different to the way the Victorians did it.

The big tunneling machine, works at a slow pace (understandably, you would too if you weighed 1000 tonnes)  and Ada (yes ‘Ada’ – the machines were named by the public in a competition at the start of the project) Ada is due to reach Bond Street at Christmas – no doubt she wants to stop off and do some Christmas shopping. But I find it fascinating that all this is going on under our feet with minimal disruption to the roads and daily London life. We will have to wait until 2018 to see the finished product but I’m told that we will get an opportunity to see an update at OHW 2013.

One of the most interesting/quirky facts I learned at this visit was some of the discoveries they’ve made whilst digging, unearthing among other things a Mamouth’s jaw!! Just a reminder of the rich heritage of thousands and thousands of years that lies beneath our feet.

And Open House Weekend is another reminder of exactly this, and it gives us a great chance to explore that heritage both old and new.   But don’t forget there is ample opportunity to explore it all year round, and I hope through my blogg and tweets that you will find the opportunities and be inspired to go beyond the facades and discover all London has to offer.  

You can find out more about Open House at http://www.londonopenhouse.org/

London’s Saddest Building

Buildings are like people, there can be so many, so different, so unique.  They can be beautiful to look at, or plain, or plain ugly (no offence).  And like people they can often be more beautiful, more purposeful than the outside can portray.  They (both people and buildings) can hold so much depth, so much history, so many memories, and sometimes so much sadness.

Perhaps the saddest building in London (in my opinion) is that which stands prominently in the heart of London’s west end.  The Trocadero.

Just opposite the much adored Eros, she just looks like any other building there from the outside.  Inside however it’s clear she’s suffered from too much plastic surgery 20 years ago and like many ancient Hollywood icons, you can clearly tell it.   Enter in and pass through by Starbucks and the over-touristy sweet shops, into the giant cavernous hole that is the centre, the heart of Trocadero.  But it’s a broken and damaged heart.  There you will see a confusing mish-mash of stores, arcades and attempts at theme park entertainment.    

Trocadero 1

But, high up through the dark brooding lighting (another attempt at theme park/TV studio maybe) you can see the evidence of a glamorous theatre that once was.

..and glamorous it was.  The place to be in a bygone era, beginning life as a home to general low key entertainment, circus and music acts, it had big West End ambitions.  Perhaps the luckless fate of this building could be seen even then; its name changed so many times over the years how could anyone ever remember who or where it was.  From ‘The Palace of Varieties’ to ‘The Theatre of Arts’ to the ‘Royal Trocadero Music Hall’ to name a few,  constantly trying to make big it in the West End theatre scene.

The first London Riots

However, it never quite made it. It housed many waifs and strays over the years, including sacked big name theatre managers, in its attempt to make something of itself.  In 1835 it was closed down after the local council was informed that the famous Sarah Booth of the Covent Garden Theatre, had been performing there outside of her Covent Garden contract (Treason!)

After this disgrace the theatre became home again to circus acts and boxing matches.  In the following years it kept its low reputation housing all manor of common shows and exhibitions (including wax works – the proprietors were no Mrs Tussaudes however) and…prostitutes. As ‘The Argyll Rooms’ another of its many names, it was dramatically described by one witness in 1878 as “the most destructive place in London to female virtue”.   Another Londoner commented that “I could not talk long with a burglar without finding the “Gyll” mentioned as his favourite resort”.

That same year it was the scene of the original London riots.   A notice was served that it was to be closed down one Friday night in November.   The police expected trouble and deployed 150 officers to carry out the task, which surprisingly passed peacefully. However, the following night 5000 unhappy people gathered outside, a riot ensued and there were ‘Many cases of assault and disorderly conduct recorded’ – I guess nothing is new in London.

Success at Last

Eventually it gave up its lifelong ambition for West End stardom, and by 1900 was a popular restaurant.  It enjoyed much success, with an elaborate range of dining rooms and in-house entertainment including a wall that would completely disappear.  You can still see remnants of this era if you venture up the escalators within the cinema (don’t forget to purchase a ticket first) they’re the strange, brown 3Dish paintings on the walls which look so out of place, but give glimpses into its former life.

Trocadero 2

But then, like every step in this sad building’s life, people lost interest and the Trocadero returned to its former ways of cheap-get-by entertainment. The 50s saw the tea rooms replaced by a bowling alley and casino.   Before eventually … closing.

Stuck in the 80s

The 80s saw another attempt at revival for the Trocadero, again back to its former glory of trashy entertainment.   Featuring an supersonic arcade (with a giant Sonic the Hedgehog model) complete with shops, cinema, its futuristic architecture sponsored by Pepsi, it was the cool place to go in the 80s/90s.  It even hosted TV studios and had a pop at reality TV (go on, own up who else watched The Salon?).  But sadly as that’s where Trocadero stayed, back in the 80s/90s, while the rest of the world moved on outside. Today it stands a sad forlorn memorial to another era, (still) trying so hard to fit in. 

Summed perfectly up by one disappointed tourist recently as “Holy terrifying… its like I slipped and fell into David Bowie’s bulging early 1990s nightmarish wonderland of mind-horror.

Maybe it’s time to finally lay the Trocadero to rest …

…or maybe it’s time for another revival!  Plans are afoot to turn The Trocadero into a new high-tech ‘pod-hotel’.   Oh dear, please someone put the poor thing out of its misery.

A load of old wax

I have the privilege of working in London. As I sit at my desk I gaze out across the roof tops of London, out to the Houses of Parliament, and the London Eye, even as far as The Shard. Then I swing my chair round and out the window I see the Emerald Dome that is… Madame Tussauds (well technically it’s actually the Planetarium).

I have to say if there is one thing that irritates me about London it’s the obsession with Madame Tussauds; I just don’t get it! Every day I see it, come rain, come shine, queues and queues of people crowding to get in. Why would anyone come all the way to London just to see a bunch of wax figures, worse than that, have their pictures taken with a bunch of wax figures. It wouldn’t be be so bad, but it’s a rather expensive tourist attraction, at £28 (adult). It’s just a load of all wax; wouldn’t you rather get up close and personal with the real thing? And, this being London, there is plenty of opportunity for that. It’s not too hard to cross paths with celebrities in London, I used to bump into Ricky Gervais every day on my way to work a few years ago, they’re everywhere, you just need to know where to look.

A good place to start is with a little research. Leicester Square regularly hosts film premiers, google what’s coming up there. Then there are back stage doors, with over 40 West End theatres, there are plenty to choose from and always a host of big names making their début. The backstage door is a classic for celebrity spotting, they have to leave the theatre at some point. I still remember the day my sister won her long waited for kiss from Christian Slater at a backstage door (I was so embarrassed I was hiding behind the bins across the road – camera in hand to capture the moment of course).

Then there is knowing the right areas, and then it’s as easy as hanging out at a pub on a sunny day or a stroll down the high street. Primrose Hill is a quaint little area of London (close to Regents Park/Camden – and also home to some great London views from the hill itself), many a trendy celeb lives down here such as Chris Martin, Gwyneth Paltrow and Jude Law. Camden down the road is also a classic celebrity haunt; up until recently it was a well known fact that you didn’t need to spend too long over your pint in any Camden pub before coming across the diva of soul herself Amy Winehouse (RIP Amy). Or why not head down to Richmond on Thames on a Sunday afternoon for a movie, because that’s what Brad Pitt and his brood are currently doing every Sunday.

If you are satisfied in seeing wax-like-lifeless celebrities but would prefer to save yourself £30 then make you’re way down to Highgate cemetery, resting place for lots of history’s greats such Karl Marx, writers George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans) and Douglas Adams, cinema revolutionist Carl Mayer, Charles Dickens’s family, and that TV hero Jeremy Beadle! (you might have to be English to appreciate that one). And if the showbiz names on graves doesn’t impress you the graves themselves might, the Cemetery is well known for it’s impressive Victorian, and Gothic architecture.

Night life is also another must for celebrity spotting. One very famous haunt is The Ivy restaurant near Covent Garden. You’ll be unimpressed by the exterior, but inside, those walls have seen much that the newspapers haven’t. You will have to wait outside to see the celebrities though, as it’s impossible to get a table here unless you have an Oscar on you or £100k in your pocket.

If you want meet some royals forget the palaces and make your way down to Mahiki in Mayfair, a favourite night club of the Princes (before Marriage tamed William). And yet again you will need to have married a prince to get through the door here (or afford a drink!).

Just up the road is the Punchbowl Pub, a beautiful Georgian pub with original features, owned by none other than Madonna & Guy Ritchie (well almost, Guy gained full custody of Punchbowl in the divorce a few years ago). With a stream of celebrities through the doors, it’s a little more authentic and historical than Mahiki. But be warned the pub was investigated by authorities a few years ago for charging tourists higher prices than the regulars.

So you see there are plenty of places to get your photo snapped with a celebrity, and so much more to London than Madame Tussauds.

Of course as much as I complain about the institution that is Madame Tussauds, I actually have a lot of respect for the woman herself. She was a revolutionary business woman of her time. In the early days she led a travelling show of her wax works having gained her skill sculpting death masks of those killed in the guillotine in France. It was the freak-show of it’s time (hmm well I guess not too much has changed since then) later her work progressed as important people (Kings and dignities) began asking for their image to be preserved in 3d, the oldest of these models is the ‘Sleeping Beauty’ waxwork modelled on French Madame Du Barry (Louix XV’s mistress) back in 1763. Eventually she settled her show for a brief while round the corner on Baker street then moved to the building that now is Madame Tussauads today, a building designed and purposed for the show, a business that has gone on successfully for over 200 years and stretched world wide. That’s quite an entrepreneurial spirit for a woman of that time, and an inspiration. Donald Trump would be so proud of her.

So next you walk past Tussauds and see her image emblazoned on the side (it’s the one that looks like the backside of a penny), be inspired by a woman who knew how start a successful business, …then just keep on walking past, with your £30 safe inside your wallet!

A Very Christmassy London

I’ve said it before, but I love the film Love Actually! What I love about it (actually) is because it celebrates, and magnifies London at it’s finest; a very Christmassy London. There aren’t many times in Winter when you can fall in love with this cold, grey and misty city, but at Christmas it comes alive, with sparkle, and colour and excitement. I think Queen Victoria was thinking ahead to her beloved London in future years when she brought home the German traditions of Christmas. And now, I for one, am like a kid at Christmas (excuse the pun) when I hear that first Christmas carol, see that first crane putting up the tinsel on the high street, there is nothing like it. And if you’re not a Londoner, or have never been I would recommend the Christmas season, is a good time, to fall in love with this enchanting city.

So out of all the festivities; the Southbank German Markets, the Carols in Trafalgar square alongside the traditional Norwegian giant Christmas tree, to the crazy surreal winter wonderland in Hyde park, I have scanned the many events and complied a list of the top 5, some classic, some topsecret London hidden gems and even some fictional ones for the wish list (?!)

But before I bring you the top 5, I just have to bring you my most miserable (sadly) Christmassy bit of London (interestingly Love Actually also omitted this one actually). Disappointingly my Christmassy London low is Regent Street. Every year, someone (usually Disney) decide to trash this beautiful royal promenade by sticking up the latest Hollywood animation tacky light show. I’m sure it’s lovely for the kids, but a little disappointing if you ask me. Let us move on quickly.

So top 5 Christmassy London!!!

NUMBER 5…

 Covent Garden…Actually this almost made a low, I remember in previous years it’s been impressively decorated, larger than life; remember the gigantic Christmas tree that contained a Santa’s grotto, the edible ‘Ferrero Tree’ or last year’s Kissmas Tree . So this year, it felt a little lost and a empty I was just about to walk away when I noticed something out the corner of my eye… the LARGEST baubles in the universe. Yes, it clawed its way back into the top 5 with these novelty gigantic Xmas tree decos hanging in the market place. So big they wouldn’t have even made it on to Trafalgar’s Norwegian tree. I love it, worth a visit for those alone.

NUMBER 4…

Number 4 is a classic! Oxford Street! If you accept there will be crowds and chaos, Oxford street after dark (i.e. after 4pm) is simply magical (and much more classic than it’s Regents Street neighbour). Head down to the Bond Street end, and you have the major department stores battling out for X factor of Sparkle (this year a close battle between Selfridge’s (no surprises) and M&S (who also battled it out on the opening night with fireworks and sparkles from both). Then just around the corner, you have arty, classy St Christopher’s place (you know it’s my favourite). All of these were worthy enough for their place in Love Actually!

…And a big shout out for Westminster Council for the quick tidy up of Crossrail clutter (fellow Londoners, you know what I’m talking about!)

NUMBER 3… is the fictional entry (I know you were wondering weren’t you?) Fictional because every time I see it I think “You would make such a lovely Christmas Tree”. As I gaze out my window after dark I see it’s twinkling red and green lights, all it needs is some giant tinsel and and massive star on top (maybe Covent Garden could help). So I’ve already written to Santa asking for it to come true, I’m hoping to wake up Christmas morning….

Yes Number 3 is THE SHARD, and as one tweeter put it perfectly ‘The Shard is like a giant Christmas Tree for all of London’ ..Beat that for size Trafalgar Square.

NUMBER 2…

Top end of my list at No 2 is a secret gem, tucked away a short walk from the Christmas chaos of Oxford street is Store Street, and the delightful South Crescent. There is something about this building that is completely enchanting and mysterious, it looks modern yet old. And at this time of year it comes alive as they dress it up like a Christmas gift, like the secret it is. Known as ‘The Imagination Galley’ this is a gorgeous building inside and out, fashioned into an exclusive gallery/conference venue. But if you’re not privileged enough to get inside, but still hungry for for a bit of culture/architecture check out The Building Centre next door. No this is not the place to buy Uncle Ted his DIY pressies, but rather, it’s a great venue/gallery celebrating architecture (and not so exclusive as it’s imaginative neighbour) they host regular events and seminars for those interested in all things building. And if you peer through the window, by the entrance they have a Fab scale model of London City – and just for the Christmas season they’ve sprinkled it with icing sugar (ok so I made that up, but it’s a another great idea?!)

If all that sounds a bit too cultural and you just want to escape the Christmas crowds, then do stop off anyway. Because right opposite South Crescent is the yummy Busaba Thai (best Thai chain in London Guaranteed!!); you can sit and gaze at the pretty lights from the comfort of your dinner plate!

NUMBER 1….

Top of my list, straight from Love Actually, I am totally in love with …. drum roll…. Somerset House Tiffany Ice Skating. …Well all Christmassy ice skating in London, actually. Somehow they just know how to pick the most beautiful locations, Somerset house being one of them. In the beautiful square court yard with the Tiffany (..hear all the girls sigh) Christmas Tree, I’m sure this historic building on the Thames was made for this moment. It’s like walking, gliding into a romantic Jane Austen picture book… But if Tiffany’s doesn’t do it for you, how about historical Tower of London rink? Or the beautiful Victorian Natural History Museum, or for something more modern there’s the Canary Wharf rink – keep an eye on your shares, on the ice . Or if you want to escape the London madness altogether head over to the stunning Hampton Court.

Just be warned though, ice-skating is the top of most people’s lists, and you will most likely need to book ahead. But the good news is most rinks run through beyond the Christmas period until January.

So there you have it my Christmassy London top 5. It only happens once a year, enjoy every moment, every sparkle. But if that’s really not enough Christmassy London for you, I recommend you buy a copy of Love Actually, it will last a lot longer (that’s what I do, actually, and I love it … actually!)