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A Straight Line Walk Across London
by Paul K Lyons
52 - St Giles High Street (past, present and future) and model flats for families
Turning right onto St Giles High Street, past a monstrous grey Ministry of Defence building (St Giles Court), it's clear that, despite the presence of a church, this is not much of a high street any longer. But, from Roman times until the mid-19th century it was the main road into London from the west. During the Middle Ages, travellers approaching the city would pass by a gallows in St Giles Circus (where Centre Point now stands) and a prisoners' cage in the High Street. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the area was notorious for its poverty, crime and overcrowding, and was known as the Rookery. During the Victorian era, slum areas were knocked down to make way for new roads (such as New Oxford Street, Shaftesbury Avenue and Charing Cross Road). Then, more recently, bomb damage in World War Two, and the subsequent reconstruction led to the current characterless jumble of buildings. At the time of writing, Camden has developed a major plan to revitalise the area. For St Giles Court, for example, it envisages a mixed use development with new homes, including affordable housing, as well as cultural, retail and tourism activities. It also wants to see better pedestrian pathways, new public spaces, and trees lining both sides of St Giles High Street.
At the east end of St Giles High Street, there is a jumble of roads and a confusion of traffic across which the Oasis sports centre and Shaftesbury Theatre are visible. The latter is most well known for the archetypal sixties musical 'Hair', which ran for nearly 2,000 performances. The current show is 'Thoroughly Modern Millie'. I turn left into Dyott Street, to angle back towards the 300 easting. This is a rare and quiet back street without much activity. Even the parking spaces are unoccupied (perhaps this is due to the Congestion Charge). There are, however, plenty of security cameras pointing down, watching my every movement. The back of one building, with its old fashioned metal s-shape reinforcements and stained glass, intrigues me. This is the Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, built in the 1840s by John Gibson. The front is dominated by a large neo-Norman rose window. Sunday services are at 11.00am and 6.30pm, both followed by coffee. Like both St Giles and St Martin, Bloomsbury Central also offers lunch time recitals during the week.
Dyott Street leads me across the busy New Oxford Street. Camden's regeneration plan foresees, for the latter, a more continuous strip of street level shops, ones that complement and reflect the youth and fashion stores on Oxford Street, or the more specialist electrical and furnishing stores on Tottenham Court Road. Indeed, there are already specialist photographic stores at this point on New Oxford Street, and, almost exactly on the 300 easting, a computer store (Square Group) selling wickedly good-looking apple computers. A 23 inch (viewable) thin film transistor active-matrix liquid crystal flat screen display, supporting 1,920 x 1,200 pixel resolution, costs in the region of £1,600 (inc VAT).
A few yards north, on the corner of Dyott Street and Streatham Street,
is an early Victorian block of flats (dating from around 1850), unremarkable
to look at, but carrying the words 'Model Houses for Families' in the stone
above the second story. This building was erected by the 'Society for Improving
the Condition of the Laboring Classes', and was designed by the society's
honourary architect Henry Roberts. He was well known for designing many
and varied country houses for the aristocracy, but he was also a thoughtful
and influential designer of accommodation for the poor, publishing widely
on the subject. The Streatham Street building, with its open courtyard and
gallery access to the flats, was built to unusually high standards (not
least through the use of fire-resistant materials). Moreover, Roberts persuaded
the authorities that the galleries should be treated as elevated streets
and that, therefore, the building should not be liable to window tax. Partly
as a consequence of his forceful arguments, the government soon withdrew
the window tax, and, thereafter, other philanthropic organisations were
able to finance similar dwellings for the poor.
A Straight Line Walk Across London - along the 300 easting
by Paul K Lyons
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