Tottenham Court Road:
From Gower Street I pass down any of the side streets on my right and come out onto the long strait of Tottenham Court Road.
About a decade ago I moved to London and used the Tube daily to get to work. I would get the Northern Line down to Charing Cross and change for the Bakerloo Line. It’s a long tramp by foot along a maze of corridors and you become conscious of going past the same posters for films and London attractions again and again. It has a strange parallel here in West 1. I’ve never enjoyed walking down Tottenham Court Road. At its southern end it’s a block of media outlets and as you go north a never ending loop of chain eateries that come around again and again – Starbucks-Leon-EAT.-Pret a Manger-Itsu-Café Nero-M&S-Starbucks-Leon-EAT.-Pret a Manger-Itsu-Café Nero-M&S.
Tottenham Court Road is also a thoroughfare teeming with charity muggers who implore you to speak to them as if trying to winkle some humanity out of a materialistic herd in its daily grind. They stalk the vulnerable - primary coloured predators oozing with pamphlet-sanctioned self-righteousness. My gripe isn’t the commendable charities they represent but the ubiquitous hard sell and the pretence of being friends that just want a quick chat. You know the terminus in this ride is the disclosure of your direct debit details. The same techniques were used to sell PPI.
If you look up above the bright branded shop signs, you’ll see cupolas, weather vanes and forgotten spires. I’m ashamed to say that it was only in the research of this post I first raised my eyes to see them. Something about streets like this just makes you look down and keep the blinkers on. There are a few remarkable buildings however. The Rising Sun has a striking white frontage. The building dates back to 1730 but was remodelled in 1897 by Scottish architects Henry Treadwell & Leonard Martin. Every curl and flourish in the stonemasonry begets smaller detail. During the beer nadir in the 80s and early 90s, it spent some time as Presley’s - an Elvis Presley theme bar.
|the Rising Sun|
Roughly halfway down Tottenham Court Road there is a site of interest: Whitfield’s Tabernacle and its environs. The Tabernacle is actually an American church. The front entrance is almost obscured in the shade of a tree canopy and easy to miss. Architecturally it’s similar to some town halls and tourist information centres - a double stair leads up to the door from both sides. For me what makes the site remarkable is that it’s where the last V2 bomb to hit London landed demolishing the 18th century buildings that had previously stood there.
|Whitfield's Tabernacle - easily overlooked|
A few metres to the south in Tottenham Street is the side of a building with an impressive vertical mural. Through serendipity, the hulking BT tower watches over its shoulder offering a unique view to the onlooker. There is a small piazza in front and it’s a welcome break in the otherwise ceaseless chain store frontage. For as long as I’ve known the area it’s been haunted by the homeless and individuals with mental health problems. Trying to put myself in their shoes, I can see why this patch might seem like a small oasis of quietude compared to the perpetual motion of Tottenham Court Road.
|for me, one of the most unpremeditated but striking views in London|
If you investigate further down Tottenham Street you’ll see an amazing pair of quirky and bespoke shops on Whitfield Street: Pollocks Toy Museum and Pollocks Theatrical Print Warehouse. Their uniqueness is only amplified by the repeat chain nature of their arterial street.
After continuing down Tottenham Court Road for a bit further, I turn right down Charlotte Street to visit The Draft House.
The Draft House Charlotte Street:
Firestone Walker Easy Jack IPA (keg 4.7)
Expensive beer. I bought it because of the rave about Firestone. Light copper in appearance with visible carbonation streaming up the glass side. Fine Lilly white head. Actually a gentle body with gentle carbonation. Peachy taste or maybe nectarine. For an IPA it's not very dry though that doesn't bother me at all. It's a fruity beer right through that leaves a sweet fructose aftertaste. This could easily get called a golden ale in Britain. In a way it’s a bit like Duke by Orbit Beers but even sweeter.
Beavertown Brewery Bloody 'Ell (keg 7.2)
This is billed as a blood orange IPA. It's very light pale gold on the eye with a high bleached white fine head. It's sweet like actual fruit juice by which I mean the juice you get when you chew fruit. There is either a big malt dimension or a big fruit sugar one - they're both carbs. It does taste of blood orange. I remember having red oranges in Italy when I was a nipper. There is a dry bittering hop. The blood orange does blot out flavor hops but why not? It's flavour enough.
I retrace my steps and stare down the muzzle of Tottenham Court Road. It is like some giant arrow hurtling towards Centre Point. I suppose there’s some beauty to this brutalist geometry but you need to get into the middle of the road to do it. Not to be attempted without a central reservation! The image below was taken early on a Sunday morning. Centre Point now marks the site of St Giles Rookery (a rookery was an old term for a building lived in by the poor of which there were many in 19th Century London - a slum).
|Centre Point (uninhabited for its first 9 years) - dead ahead!|
The Dominion Theatre stands at the corner of New Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road. I’ve long identified it by the giant golden simulacra of Freddy Mercury striking his iconic pose at the front. Alas he's now gone (I only found out when I took the picture) as We Will Rock you has left the joint.
|site of the Meux Brewery|
In 1814 however, another building stood here. It was the Meux Brewery. It aged porter beer in giant vats much as Flemish reds are aged in foudres/Foedern today. On 17th October that year, one of the vats ruptured and caused a domino effect with the other vessels. About one and a half million litres of beer surged through the building in a bow wave destroying the roof beams. The deluge surged across the ground to St Giles Rookery opposite. 8 women and children (mostly in underground rooms) were killed either by injury or drowning. Nobody was found to be responsible in a court of law. The brewery even successfully reclaimed the duty it had paid on the beer. The verdict? The tragedy was officially deemed an act of god!