The best way to travel in London is to walk or cycle but walking & cycling takes time and time is luxury I’m rarely afforded, And taxi journeys are an expense I personally can’t frequently justify So I mostly travel by tube and today were going to an area called St. Giles which is just by Tottenham Court road Tube station.
Just outside Tottenham court road tube station is a road junction known as St Giles Circus, It’s a crossroads and currently under development & reconstruction for a new cross rail station. Overlooking the St Giles circus is the centrepoint building which is currently being transformed from office space into luxury flats, it gained listed status in 1995 and has stirred controversy ever since it was originally built in the 1960s
There is also a homeless charity called centre point and although separate things they and the building have somehow become linked in the minds & conscience of many Londoners, I’m not sure if it is seen as a symbol of homelessness or greed or maybe both. After its completion as an office block much of the building remained vacant for years while the then owners tried to find a tenant prepared to pay to occupy the whole building. And the owners were wealthy enough to wait unsuccessfully so that the building remained unoccupied for nearly a decade.
Then in the 1970s frustrated by this huge space being empty while people slept on the streets it was occupied by campaigners for homelessness in London. Only afterwards was it let on a floor by floor basis. And ever since The building became associated & symbolic of the challenge of homelessness London faced and sadly still faces every day today.
The marketing of the new flats doesn’t hide from its past but appears to me at least to be reinventing the tower as the centre point of London which is a position traditionally & historically held by charring cross but when cross rail is complete may well be true of this area and will hopefully be a very positive & prosperous new future for both the building & an area with a long and often challenging history.
Like much of London the St Giles area is very much part of the very modern city but London as well as being a modern city is also an ancient one so despite constant redevelopment there is always a mix of both the modern and the old where ever you go. St Giles today like the majority of London is a very safe place to visit and has some fantastic new developments, amazing restaurants and only the wealthy can afford to buy a home or apartments here, I read in the press prices for flats in the centre point tower will originally be marketed at prices ranging from 1.8 million pounds up to 55 million pounds for a penthouse. However the St Giles’ area has a far from prosperous and dark history even by London standards.
Saint Giles is the patron saint of among others outcasts and the area was named after him for a reason and it seems no coincidence he was later invoked against the plague and by people here intercession would have been believed to be effective against the black death itself. In the 11th century this was the outskirts of London and there was a leper hospital here.
The Great Plague (1665–66) was the last major epidemic of the bubonic plague to occur in England and it began here and then went on to kill an estimated 25% of the London population at that time. The area could only improve & by the eighteenth century had many aristocratic residents and the church here was demolished & a new one here was built in its place between 1730 & 1734.
But then the population began to increase & conditions worsen – dramatically, and for much of its more recent past St Giles was a rookery or what we would commonly call in the developing world today a slum, and this was one of the worst slums in Britain 150 odd years ago. It sounds like long ago but the Victorian slums across London were only cleared or in modern language redeveloped in the living memory of my grandparents only to be replaced by even higher density vertical versions in the form of council tower blocks which are being demolished and regenerated all across London to this day.
The St. Giles rookery was a maze of gin shops and the artists Hogarth’s engraving gin alley is believed to have been set here, the web of secret alleyways with all the crime that comes when poverty & wealth live side by side which the police of the day had little hope of preventing.
Charles dickens came here in 1850 and was shown around but apparently required a whole squad of police officers to protect him and he often wrote about it and referenced it, it was the poorest part of London and the iconic slum. No doubt If you have read about a Victorian London slum or seen one dramatized in a movie it was probably in some way based on what dickens documented right here.
Capital punishment was abolished here 50 years ago but long before that for a period of history london’s gallows were in the corner of the church yard and at that time executions were public, people would have come here to was criminals hang.
Much of the area today has now undergone modern redevelopment but Some of the 17th century terrace buildings or at least their façades survive in Denmark street which is synonymous with the music industry and has been for over 100 years it gained the nickname tin pan alley. These buildings being home to successful music businesses probably saved them from redevelopment & secured their future in the past but it could not stop the latest wave for cross rail which removed half the block that ran parallel called Denmark place.
It’s sad to see them go if you look down these streets even the parts that are currently being demolished they were admittedly a bit rough around the edges and seemed maybe under supported by the music industry which by & large left long ago but they had not succumbed to the ubiquitous global coffee brands or burger outlets that line the high streets admittedly one of which we are heading to – but they had a personality that gave the area a unique feel.
Originally there were sheet music businesses here supplying the musicians and orchestras just down the road in the west end theatres. But it grew and eventually became the centre of the UK music industry attracting everything and everyone to do with the music industry, managers, promoters magazines, record labels or just somewhere to buy a guitar pick.
In the 1950s the first recording studios opened and during its heydays in 1960s the Rolling stones recorded their first album at number 4 Regent Sound studios other artist to record there included Jimi Hendrix, the who, the kinks and Black Sabbath. More advanced studios like abbey road eventually made it obsolete and it closed and the shop was then the first forbidden planet comic book store and then when they outgrew it a bookshop but it is now back in the music business.
The St. Giles area makes you realise that change here has been constant, inhabited & documented for over a thousand years and inevitably change will continue as it will the rest of London, it can be positive, it has been positive yet simultaneously it sad & challenging and for those really facing it will understandably provoke fear & resistance.
Its interesting to capture these areas of London, some in a way feel like shrinking islands of nostalgia and sadly one day someone may be watching our film of them to re kindle a memory because they are gone.
I’m meeting my girlfriend at Byron hamburgers at central St Giles, I’m early & she has been shopping in town and will be fashionable late so I go and take a seat and get a drink while I wait.
Byron say there mission is to serve proper hamburgers the way they should be. They source good beef from Scottish farms. They mince it fresh every day. They cook it medium so it’s pink, juicy and succulent. They place it in a soft, squishy bun with minimum fuss and fanfare. They serve it in a comfortable environment with a smile.
That’s what they say however the contest for the best burger in town is a hotly contested competition, burger aficionados a few years ago when Byron was just starting out raved about Byron, it topped best burger lists and it grew, it was & is hugely popular & successful,
Byron has grown exponentially since it began but the burgers are as good today as they were in their early days, however the thing with food critics they always look for the new and the niche so today Byron’s probably not topping many independent best burger list but I think critics would agree they still serve a very good one and in my experience a consistently good one.
Now Byron often launch special burgers and if they prove extremely popular they may be given a permanent place on their menu. That’s what happened with the B-rex a year after its first appearance as a special its being added to their new Classic Specials menu. And we have been invited by Byron to come and try out the newly relaunched B-rex
The B-Rex is based on their head chef Fred’s nostalgia for his first ever hamburger – a 6oz patty topped with an onion ring, streaky bacon, American cheese, jalapeños, pickles and onions, plus BBQ sauce and mayonnaise.
We also ordered sides of French fries & macaroni cheese, I love the mac & cheese at Byron you get the layer of stringy baked cheese on top & below the macaroni is gooey rich, creamy and of coarse cheesy.
I love courgette fries and quite a few places serve them but very very few get them right & nor does Byron. I’ve only had good ones in Italian restaurants and they are amazing with the texture & bite of a potato French fries & the same size as McDonald’s French fries. Every time I find somewhere that makes good ones I ask them how they prepare them but obviously the waiting staff don’t know, I was once taken to the kitchen to see the chef but he was so startled to see a member of the public & his English was not fantastic he struggled to tell me but I think he dehydrated them but I’m not sure if he meant in an oven or in sea salt before deep frying them, the chef looked so scared of answering my questions I left him to it and that restaurants sadly closed now. But dehydrating makes sense as most places they are not cut thinly enough and they are basically soggy on the inside not soft. So we love zucchini fries but when you’ve had the good ones although the fat soggy ones most places serve are edible there simply disappointing because they can be so much better.
The Byron Hamburgers B-rex burger is a fantastic new permanent addition to their menu and it tastes as delicious as it looks. In fact a meal at Byron is a perfect mix of comfort foods, a bacon cheese burger, mac & cheese, French fries & onion rings and if you still have room fabulous deserts. And I’m sure if you watch our YouTube vlog it will make your mouth water.