If I told you that today I walked through a neighbourhood called Fitzrovia, what would you picture?
For me, the name somehow triggers images of wealth, chandeliers and Gatsby-esque parties. In reality, the majority of this neighbourhood is less like a roaring-20’s mansion and more like a Toulouse Lautrec painting; grim and dark with hints of sadness. Alan Partridge might even call it moribund.
I’m not the only one to comment on the dereliction here. On their scale of “deprevation”, the Office for National Statistics gives the neighbourhood an overall rating of “above-averagely deprived” and ranks the living environment as follows:
The overwhelming sense I felt as I walked around was that this neighbourhood is the victim of conflicting interests and, as a result, a kind of characterless stagnation has settled on all but a few of the streets. Fitzrovia has a rough but artistic and bohemian history and faint traces of that remain. But there are obviously those who want to develop the neighbourhood (those who sadly seem to be winning the battle) by dropping in big, modern, characterless buildings (with inexplicable cockroaches adornments).
The Good Parts
To be fair to Fitzrovia, I only explored about a third of it today so perhaps there are wonderful things in store on a later walk. As for today, while my overall sentiments were distinctly meh, there were a couple of places I did enjoy that I wanted to share with you.
The Adams brothers (of Day 25 fame) designed Fitzroy Square in the late 1790’s, and the beautiful Portland stone buildings were home to a load of notable residents including: Virginia Woolfe and George Bernard Shaw (in the same house but not at the same time), Robert Gascoyne Cecil, James McNeil Whistler and Francisco de Miranda (with the wonderful epitaph: precursor of Latin American independence). Now, the Venezuelan embassy is located in Miranda’s former home and is neighboured by the embassies and consulates of Mozambique, Liberia and Croatia.
The square itself is only open to the surrounding residents, but two times a year you can get in and see it for yourself. Your first option is the London Open Squares weekend that runs every June. It’s a great way to access loads of places you can normally only peek through slats and gates to see.
An even better option is to attend the Fitzroy Square Opera, a free, one-night-only event aimed at making opera accessible to everyone (in a beautiful setting). Seating is provided and there is some room on the grass for picnics from home or from the caterer’s matching-themed food (tapas and paella for last year’s performance of Carmen). I personally love that, while the seating is unallocated, you can reserve your space with a Post-it note provided by the venue. You should definitely keep an eye out for announcements about this year’s upcoming performance!
The BT Tower is one of London’s most iconic buildings and can be seen from almost everywhere in the city. It was originally built as the Post Office’s telecommunications tower, and when it was opened to the public in 1964 it was the tallest building in London (it was overtaken in 1980 by the NatWest building I found on Day 6). It has since been dwarfed by skyscrapers like the Shard but it still falls in a respectable place on the list of London’s tallest buildings. Like the Gherkin on Day 2, there’s just something wonderful about walking right up to a London icon and seeing it from a whole new angle. I love it.
Originally, the 34th floor housed a souvenir shop and London’s only revolving restaurant and annual race was held up the stairs of the tower, ending at the dining floor. But the fun stopped in 1971 when an IRA bomb went off in the men’s loos in the restaurant. The tower was shut for repairs and never reopened. Sadly, access is now only given on a strictly invite-only basis.
While you may not be able to get to the top any more, you can still enjoy this 360-degree view from the Tower in the world’s biggest photo of London. If that’s not interactive enough for you, maybe you can petition your favourite celebrity to include you in their next Sport’s Relief abseiling endeavour.
The other area worth visiting from today’s walk is the Charlotte Street/Goodge Street area. It seems this part of the neighbourhood has always been the social heart of Fitzrovia. The Fitzroy Tavern, the inspiration for the area’s name, is located at 16 Charlotte Street and was a famous meeting place for local artists, intellectuals and bohemians such as Dylan Thomas, Lawrence Durrell and George Orwell. (For those seeking a little more adventure, Theresa Berkley ran a brothel from #28 that specialised in flagellation).
These days, the area is full of small, independent cafes and restaurants covering a huge variety of ethnic foods and specialities. Some, like Boopshis, for example, serve strange combinations like schnitzel and spritzes. If you aren’t sure how to choose the best place for your night out, there’s an app for that. The Wheel of Om Nom (best app name ever) makes a game of Russian roulette out of your dining experience to delicious effect.
So while most of today’s walk was not an area I would tell you to rush off and see, this area, with its delicious restaurants and old time pubs is definitely worth a visit.
See you next time!
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