London 2014: Soho, Seven Dials and Denmark Street

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Friday afternoon we take a tour of Westminster Abbey and attend the Evensong service, complete with seats in the Quire, the area behind nave. Afterward we ride the tube to Covent Garden (where the trains lets us off 150 feet below street level and there is an insane wait for one of the two elevators that services the station), eat supper at Shake Shack in Covent Garden, and finish off with a leisurely walk back on crowded streets through 7 Dials, Denmark Street, and back up Charing Cross to Great Russell Street and home. Saturday is a quiet, rainy day. We hang around the flat most of the morning while it rains, watching TV, reading, catching up on school work and writing, and only go out to buy groceries at Sainsburys.

This is Stella’s week to cook for herself. Each student gets 40 pounds per week for a food allowance, and Julia Rose has already had a week to shop and prepare food for herself. This is Stella’s week, and she makes her choices judiciously, clutching her basket on the crook of her arm. It strikes me that this is the answer to her question about why she needs to learn algebra, which we had earlier in the week, and which proved frustrating from my point of view. Nothing like practical application to drive the need for math home.

Soho Square

Soho Square

Just off Soho, established in the 1800s

Just off Soho, established in the 1800s

By afternoon I’m housebound bored and put on my rain jacket and go out for a walk. The night before we had crossed through 7 Dials, a little roundabout with a monument in the middle, where seven streets radiate out from the center of the circle. On the radius of the circle the streets combine in an apex, the point of a triangle. On the way to 7 Dials, walking down Charing Cross, I see a sign off a side street pointing to Soho, so as Lisa pointed out later, and Warren Zevon sang so well, I was “walking the streets of Soho in the rain.” There’s a little square garden in the center, probably 50 yards square, with benches and grass and walking paths, enclosed behind a wrought iron fence. Across from the park there’s a little Catholic church wedged into the neighborhood, only a couple hundred years old, but open and pretty on the inside. In the park I listen to a man, who is lecturing a couple of friends on the history of the neighborhood, discuss the new train station going in where Tottenham Court turns into Charing Cross Street. The construction has been going on for years and will be going on for four or five years after we leave. Apparently they’re threading a rail line into the neighborhood. In fact, at some point referred to as “The Eye of the Needle,” the underground section only has 1 meter of clearance, as the tube has to pass under an existing tube escalator and over an existing tube line. The man discusses attaching lasers to the buildings to help align drills to pump reinforcing concrete into the soil to reinforce the tunnesl. Riding the tubes, it’s easy to imaging the tube line running a few feet underground, but as I discovered getting off at Covent Garden the night before, sometimes the trains are running quite deep and going uphill and downhill, though it’s impossible to detect while riding.

Seven Dials

Seven Dials

Seven Dials

Seven Dials

Seven Dials today is much different than what it was in the past. It was originally designed in the 1690s on farm land on the edge of London. Building licenses were sold and the original plan to include 6 converging roads was changed to 7. The number of roads apparently allowed for the maximum possible number of houses to be built on the site. The monument in the middle was a sundial pillar with six dials, the seventh dial being the pillar itself. The area was intended to be high value real estate, but by the 1800s it was pretty much a slum, the result of mass shift from agrarian lifestyles to city life due to the Industrial Revolution. At one point, each of the seven apexes running into the center of the dial held a pub, and Charles Dickens, in a sketch, wrote, “The stranger who finds himself in the Dials for the first time . . . at the entrance of Seven obscure passages, uncertain which to take, will see enough around him to keep his curiousity awake for no inconsiderable time.” Gilbert (of Gilbert and Sullivan) wrote about the poverty of the Dials, as did Agatha Christie, whose 1929 The Seven Dials Mystery is set there. But now, the Dials are quite lively and lovely, with shops and little street vendors set up all around. One of the streets was closed off and there was a little fair going on with toddler and small child sized carnival rides. The most dangerous part of the dials was for tourists like me dodging the cabs going around the traffic circle and veering off down one of the lanes. The architecture of the Dial was so unexpected, at least to me and I suspect others, that traffic just didn’t seem to belong and no one seemed to be looking before crossing a street on the radius of the dial.

Denmark Street going toward Charing Cross

Denmark Street going toward Charing Cross

Inside Regent Guitar Store

Inside Regent Guitar Store

Next I wandered down Denmark street, just a few short blocks from our flat, and a street we’ve already walked down several times before realizing its significance. It comes out on the theatre district off Charing Cross road. The street is relatively short—one block, a little over a football field—but it’s crammed with specialty guitar, drum, and music stores, plus a few nightclubs. Lisa found out it had a music history (plus, the guy who helped invent the diving helmet, Augustus Siebe, who died in 1872, lived here). It was first developed in the late 1600s, as was its neighbor Seven Dials, but it came into prominence in the 1900s at England’s Tin Pan Alley, before the advent of radio and when sheet music publishers controlled the music industry. By the 1950 the music publishing industry was in decline, but a number of music shops and recording studios took over, and in the 1960s the street was a hotbed for rock and roll. The Rolling Stones recorded at Regent Studio at No. 4 Denmark St. (their first album in 1964, including “Not Fade Away”), and the Sex Pistols lived above No. 6 and recorded their demo tapes below the flat. The old establishment lost touch with the contemporary sound, and one old time shop tried to convince Paul Simon that “Homeward Bound” and “The Sound of Silence” lacked commercial value. The Kinks, with Jimmy Page on guitar, recorded “You Really Got Me” on Denmark Street. Musicians hung out on Denmark Street, including David Bowie and Jimi Hendrix. Elton John wrote his first single on Denmark Street.

Where the Stone Recorded

Where the Stone Recorded

Today, the street is full of guitar shops, like I said. From the first time I wandered the street with Lisa, looking for Covent Garden and slightly lost, I noted all the geometrically-odd shaped cardboard boxes lying on the curb to be picked up with the trash, which I finally realized were guitar shipping boxes. On my day walk I went inside the former studios, now guitar shops, where old hippie owners and shopkeepers invited me to play anything I wanted. Some of those guitars were listed at 2,500 or more pounds, and I saw the names Les Paul and Gibson over and over. In No. 4 Regent Street, the first shop I went in to, there was plenty of Stones print memorabilia, and in the back of the shop three or four teenage English boys trying out the instruments, talking technical talk with an employee, and I could tell they were regulars.. I imagine hundreds of kids have stopped off in the shops over the years, imagining themselves becoming the next Mick and Keith, or Jimi.

In another shop I stopped to listen to an employee work over a resonator acoustic guitar. Marvelous sounds. He turned to another guy who worked there and said the instrument was “loosening up,” which I took to be a good thing.  The other guy said I could play whatever  I wanted, but I would have been embarrassed to try my standard 5 chord riff. I didn’t want to break the spell of the Stones, Paul Simon, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, and the Kinks. Not even the Sex Pistols.

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