You can find the map for today’s 3.83 mile walk here. 123 days until the Congestion Zone Ends Party! Follow on Twitter for more updates.
I usually plan my day around where I can get to that day and what I’m doing after the walk. Sometimes that means I end up seeing a little bit of several different neighbourhoods in one walk. It can feel really disjointed because, instead of getting an idea of one neighbourhood as a cohesive whole, I only get a small glimpse before I’m on to something new. It’s a little strange, but the contrast makes things more interesting and the diversity of London really stands out. That’s very much how today’s walk went. It had a little bit of everything.
For Day 33 I was in a chunk of London between Bloomsbury, Covent Garden, Oxford Street and Holborn that had a strange mix of atmospheres. I saw a lot of dereliction, a lot of construction, some hideous buildings and some lovely ones. There were a couple of really boring streets and a few that made me almost giddy with excitement. Then there was a lovely present from the universe that ended my walk early but made me a very happy lady. All in all it was a pretty successful day.
The Ugly Bits
I love a good bit of dereliction. It takes away the sugar-coating and creates some reality in a city. It builds character. And it proves that nature will always reclaim what we build if we let it. I just didn’t expect to see so much of it in central London.
There is a building on New Oxford Street that has been abandoned as long as I can remember. It’s huge. Truly massive. I can’t imagine how many flats they could fit inside this place if they just renovated it or tore it down and started over. There are signs up saying they are working on it but I don’t believe them. It’s probably to deter urban explorers (and party goers like those who took over the building in 2010 for an all-night rave), but when was the last time they heeded a No Entry sign?
This big, broken, black behemoth of a building looks no different now than it did the first time I saw it in 2010. I watch construction all over the city every time I’m out and I am constantly amazed at how fast they can slap things up. If they wanted this place shiny and new, the queen would be cutting the ribbon by next Wednesday.
I have always been perplexed by this eyesore so I looked into it when I got home and found out it is an old Post Office sorting house that is now rented out occasionally for large events. But how often do people need 120,000 square feet of space for their party? One whole acre of London? And at the very least, why can’t the new owners at least make the outside somewhat presentable.
Weirdly, this amount of wasted space is not unusual in London and it’s something that I find really bizarre every time I see it. All we ever hear is that we are running out of room for people to live. There aren’t any more flats; there isn’t any more space; we all have to settle for the fringes of the city. But I have seen SO many huge (I mean HUGE) buildings on my walks that are just sitting there, taking up insane amounts of space. Why? Who owns them? What were they? What happened? How can it be cheaper to let them sit there and rot than to fix them up and sell them off to the hundreds of people desperate for flats right now?
Across the street from this is another abandoned building. It’s not quite so big but it’s certainly not unsubstantial. It just sits there, black and blue, battered and bruised from the weather and lack of care, slowly decaying.
Even the space invader in the same alley is falling apart a bit. He’s crumbling, chipped and splattered with paint. He and the area around him have definitely seen better days.
It wasn’t just dereliction that caught my eye today. Some of the places I saw weren’t abandoned, they were just ugly. What was it with the gold-mirrored look? Did people really like that style back then? All I can picture inside is an office full of men with pornstaches and armpit stains on their peach button-up shirts.
The Pretty Bits
Thankfully, this being London, just around the corner from the ugly bits are…the pretty bits! Really pretty bits, in fact.
I have walked and cycled down High Holborn about a million times and not once noticed the City Hall. Lovely.
Then there was Grape Street. I actually found myself talking to the buildings when I was there, telling them how pretty they were. I am a sucker for turrets and crenellations (mainly because I like an excuse to say the words) and these had them in bounds.
Near Holborn Station there’s Sicilian Avenue, a delicate little passageway that feels a bit fake because it’s just so perfect. Before its current state of splendour, it was one of the victims of the London Beer Flood of 1814, a 15-foot wall of beer that rolled down the street, flooding the area and killing seven people. The Holborn Whippet, a pub on Sicilian Avenue, commemorates the event’s anniversary every year with a special porter.
Somewhat oddly, my favourite building of the day wasn’t any of these really decorative, dainty ones though. It was a housing estate I stumbled across in Covent Garden. Let me just say that again. IN Covent Garden. Ok, not in the market itself but on the corner of that busy intersection at the east end of Long Acre.
I just can’t get over the fact that so many people live right smack dab in the middle of the city. I really didn’t realise it before these walks. I knew it in theory I guess, but in my head it was just the odd flat here and there and, weirdly, the entirety of Soho. But there are LOADS of housing complexes hidden around that we walk right past every day without realising. Odhams Walk is one of them.
This place is an Escher drawing come to life. There are staircases everywhere. To get from where I was to the place I could see I wanted to be, I had to go up staircases, down staircases, around corners, past private gardens and through gated doors. I ended up covering pretty much every surface of the building to get three levels up and slightly to the left of where I started.
It was worth it though for a small taste of what it might be like for the 6,000(!) residents who live there. It’s quiet, it’s peaceful, it’s open and it’s full of lovely gardens, but it’s only a ten minute walk Trafalgar Square, Oxford Street, Bloomsbury, Holborn, Aldwych and the river (if they can figure out how to get out of the building, that is). Watch this video to hear more about it from the residents themselves. They’re pretty proud of it, and rightly so.
The Other Bits
Along with the ugly and the pretty, there were a couple of quirky spots I wanted to tell you about. Near the big abandoned building on New Oxford Street, I found Wild & Coffee. Apart from being Time Out’s favourite café, it’s also home to the new fad pastry: the cronut.
If you haven’t heard, these are half doughnut, half croissant and they’re taking over the world (or were for 15 minutes before everyone realised….they’re just a donut).
The first time I heard of them, I genuinely pictured the two halves together held together with some kind of glaze or chocolate syrup or something. Then I was taught they’re actually a combination of the ingredients of each. These ones must also be made with diamond sprinkles because a the price for ONE crodoughnut is…wait for it…£3.70 (£4.60 if you sit in!). It’ll be a special day out when I can afford one of those.
Needless to say, I did not purchase one but I did take a photo of them for you and a picture of the inside of the cafe so you can picture yourself sitting in this cool cafe (next to this guy) eating your fancy pastry.
Another great spot I found was James Smith and Sons, specialists in umbrellas and sticks. Just those two things. Sounds boring but it most definitely is not.
This is a true British institution. The store front has remained essentially unaltered since it was built 140 years ago. The interior is lined with rows and rows of sticks which fill up so much space they even obscure the windows, making it even more curious for passersby.
In the past, they sold some interesting varieties of their products such as canes with swords hidden inside. My dad has always not so secretly wanted one of these, so I asked to see how much they are. The sales assistant told me they were outlawed in the 80s. Outrageous! How are we meant to sort out disagreements in a dignified fashion without our sword sticks?
If any shop inspired JK Rowling’s Olivander’s, it’s this place. It’s organised but clearly in a way that doesn’t make sense to anyone but the employees, and no matter how confusing it may appear to outsiders, the staff know exactly where every stick is at all times.
I get the impression when you go in to buy something the sales assistant pauses, looks you up and down pondering for a moment then slides over to a cubby full of seemingly random bits of wood, and confidently withdraws the one with the heavy oak burl handle. You don’t choose the umbrella. The umbrella chooses you. Then you spend £400 for it and leave it on a bus somewhere.
The Free Bits
Well, it may not seem like it based on the length of this post, but the walk today was actually pretty short (not even 4 miles). It was for good reason though. When I was on my way to the Seven Dials, where I was planning to take in some sun, people watch and enjoy the scene, a panicked woman came running up to me and said, “Do you want a new haircut, you would be my hero if you do! It is worth £68 normally but it’d be free if you can come now. Do you have time?” Stupidly, I did contemplate saying no so I could carry on walking and finish up the day, but I have a holiday to Turkey in two weeks and I was desperate for a cut. So, love walking though I do, I cut it short (pardon the pun) and enjoyed an hour and a half of pampering at Vidal Sassoon instead.
Life is rough.
See you next time!
123 days until the Congestion Zone Ends Party! Follow on Twitter for more updates.