Category Archives: Sightseeing

Denmark Street: Britain’s Answer to Tin Pan Alley

I spent last weekend in London which, ironically, is why I didn’t have time to write about London last week. Fortunately, I kept myself very busy up there, and as such have a number of things I can discuss in more detail. One of the mornings was taken up on a walk around Covent Garden and St Giles. While on this walk – taken from a guidebook – I found myself in Denmark Street. I’d known the name, but I didn’t know much about it, so I endeavored to do a little research.

The 108-foot long street may look unremarkable from a geographical position. At the southern end of Camden, with no tube station to call its own, and traffic only permitted in one direction, one could be forgiven for thinking that it isn’t worth mentioning. Originally situated on the grounds St Giles Hospital, a leper house, opened in the 12th century by Matilda, the wife of Henry I, was here. Having passed through several hands since then, during the reign of James II the area was developed and the street named for Prince George of Denmark, the husband of Queen Anne.

The area around Denmark Street was known as the rookery, an accidental slum. Home to plague, pestilence, many brothels and those who enjoyed a drink or eleven, the street gained a negative reputation. By the end of the 1800s, it had been mostly cleared up, but remains one of the very few London streets to still have “17th century terraced facades on both sides”. It held a number of residents who are still known to us today including Dr John Purcell (a doctor specialising in “the vapours”), painter Johann Zoffany, and Jacobite Sir John Murray who made his home here until a day where he was carried off by some strange men. That may be a story for another time. In the early 1800s, the street became one for businesses and offices to set up, and it then attracted Augustus Siebe, who invented the diving helmet. A blue plaque in the street acknowledges him.

But Denmark Street doesn’t begin forming its later reputation until 1911 when Lawrence Wright, a music publisher settled in and founded the journal for musicians Melody Maker. By the end of the 1950s, the street had become known as Britain’s “Tin Pan Alley”, and was full of music publishers, writers, singers, recording artists and anything else connected with the industry. Singers in the 50s starting taking songs from those writing in Denmark Street, and Lionel Bart, who went on to write Oliver! started working in the industry here.

In the 1950s, however, artists had started writing their own songs, and didn’t need writers anymore, so the street went out of fashion for a while, at which point it changed tack and started opening recording studios instead. Songs ranging from “I’ve Got A Lovely Bunch of Coconuts” to “You Really Got Me” started to come out of Denmark Street and once it was seen as the place you had to be if you wanted to make it in music.

One of Denmark Street’s familiar faces, the late David Bowie

Once the Rolling Stones had settled in to record there, a panoply of stars made their way to the street. Reg Dwight had started working at a music publisher in 1963, and seven years later he had changed his name and given the world “Your Song“. Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones, Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie and others all found work here and it became one of the coolest places in London. But it wasn’t just music producers here. In the seventies, guitar shops and a comic book store were installed on the street.

In 1980, disaster struck the street. Several unlicensed nightclubs were running in the street, and with badly maintained fire exits. When John Thompson, a local criminal was ejected one night in August that year, he returned and ignited the ground floor of one of the buildings housing a nightclub. Thirty-seven people were killed, and Thompson spent the rest of his life in prison. Another criminal is also associated with the street – the serial killer Dennis Nilsen. He worked at a job centre in the street and is notable for one Christmas bringing in a large cooking pot to help prepare the Christmas dinner. Unbeknownst to his colleagues, this was the very pot in which he had boiled the heads of his victims. A charming man.

In 1992, the last music publisher moved out of the street, and now the street is almost nothing but instrument shops. The owner of Andy’s Guitars, Andy Preston has tried to have the area rebranded as “Music Land”.

The whole area has been declared a Conservation Area, and the street itself has eight listed buildings, all Grade II, and while there are often talks of the place being redeveloped, there are protests from the current occupants about that who insist that it should retain its original character. To this day, the street will be known by those into music as an important location. Several of the shops specialise in guitars, but others sell sheet music, DVDs, and other instruments. The basement of number 22 is still a recording studio, and has been since 1954.

Although, as anyone can tell you, I am not particularly musically inclined, but even I could sense the importance of the place as I walked down it. It’s so small, and I’ve probably been through it many times before, but I’ve never really acknowledged its significance. Anyone with a love of music should pay a visit, just to say they’ve walked in the footsteps of the greats. May they forever live in, in Denmark Street.

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Seeing the Sights

A couple of weeks ago, my friend Karen asked if I could help her and her husband plot a route around London to see the sights. I went one better and provided a fully illustrated guide to every major site in London that was completely walk-able. With no idea how long it would take to walk, or even if it was all that feasible, they set off with it. Fortunately, it worked, and they were able to see everything they wanted.

As such, I provide the same route here for anyone who wants to see as much of London as possible in one day. I’ve posted a walk before, but this one has more of a goal. All you have to do is start at London Bridge station…

Head up above ground and under the Shard, and go down St Thomas Street or London Bridge Street. Go towards Borough Market, which looks like a strange sort of greenhouse. Pass through the market, heading towards the Thames. You will pass Southwark Cathedral and then arrive at the Golden Hinde. Go down Clink Street and you’ll emerge on the side of the Thames again, between a Nando’s and a pub called The Anchor.

Millennium Bridge

Walk under Southwark Bridge, and opposite Bankside Pier is Shakespeare’s Globe, the only thatched building that’s been allowed in London since the Great Fire in 1666. Next is the Millennium Bridge, famously destroyed by Death Eaters but now back in one piece. This is in front of the Tate Modern. On the other side of the bridge you will see St Paul’s Cathedral, but don’t go there yet, I’m factoring it in for later.

Go under Blackfriars Bridge and you’ll pass The Coat and Badge pub. Keep on walking past the National Theatre and then past the next two bridges (the Thames has over two hundred bridges, as well as twenty-seven tunnels, six ferries and a cable car) and you’ll come to the London Eye. The Jubilee Gardens are nice here. At Westminster Bridge, cross over the Thames at last! This should have taken about an hour so far, not counting time to stop for photos.

Here you will pass Big Ben and the Palace of Westminster where the government are busy messing up the country. Just past this, you’ll see Parliamentary Square which is full of statues of famous politicians. On your left is Westminster Abbey.

This next bit has been a bit trickier to try and fit in without going back on yourself, so I think this works as the most sensible method. Turn right before Parliamentary Square and you should be on Whitehall. Up here on the left is the entrance to Downing Street. There’s also usually some guardsmen up here too looking very severe. Walk the length of Whitehall and then you’ll reach Trafalgar Square at the end. Don’t cross over to it yet, you’ll be coming back.

The Mall, towards Buckingham Palace

Turn into the next street on the left, under Admiralty Arch, and go down The Mall – it’s the street painted red. Follow this right down and (you’ll have seen what’s at the end) you will be outside Buckingham Palace. Alternatively, you can walk through St James’s Park on your left to the same destination once through the arch.

With Buckingham Palace behind you, on the left is Green Park. Walk through here until you reach Piccadilly, and then turn right. You should pass Green Park Station. On this road you will pass The Ritz, Fortnum & Mason (grocers to the Royal family), my favourite bookshops; Hatchard’s and the flagship Waterstone’s store, and you will emerge into Piccadilly Circus. Keep going through Coventry Street and you’ll find yourself in Leicester Square, home to cinemas, restaurants and M&M’s World.

Carry on through Leicester Square and then turn right into Charing Cross Road. Keep on down this road and you will come out at Trafalgar Square. When you’re done here, your next stop is St Paul’s, but there are two options.

ONE: Go to Charing Cross tube station, get the Bakerloo line to Oxford Circus and change to the Central line to St Paul’s. This will take about ten minutes.

TWO: Walk along Duncannon Street and then into the Strand, the curve of Aldwych, down Fleet Street, and Ludgate Hill. This will take about half an hour, but takes in the Royal Courts of Justice, as well as Ye Olde Chesire Cheese, one of London’s oldest pubs.

Either method you choose, you’ll arrive at St Paul’s Cathedral. Opposite this is the geometrically angular new shopping centre One New Change, which is fairly unremarkable but there are gorgeous views from the cocktail bar on the roof, which you can get into without having to buy anything.

I promise, you’re nearly done, just a few more things to show you.

The Monument

If now facing towards the river (you should be able to see Millennium Bridge and the Tate Modern on the other side of the river), turn left into Cannon Street. At the end, turn riverwards down into King William Street then into Monument Street to see Monument, built to acknowledge the Great Fire of London. You can climb it, but it’s narrow and tough on the legs. Out of Monument Street, you’ll come to Lower Thames Street and keep going left. After another fifteen minutes or so, you reach the Tower of London.

Go down to the riverside, then cross Tower Bridge. Turn right off the end here and you’ll pass City Hall (Boris’s office) and now you’re on the home stretch back to London Bridge! Walk along this side of the river and you’ll pass HMS Belfast, and at the end of this run, you’re back at London Bridge station.

Ta-dah!

Once you’ve gone full circle, you should have seen every major tourist spot in central London. There’s still some debate about how long this takes – Karen veered off at one point, and I’ve not added up the different sections (writers, infamously, cannot do maths) – but my only advice would be to wear comfortable shoes. This is a long walk but hopefully it’s worth it.

If you feel inspired to try this walk for yourself, please let me know by commenting and tell me how it worked for you and what you particularly liked along the route. I hope this will provide a crash course in London for many of you.